“Who is you, Chiron?”
One man asks this of another as they wait for a tea kettle to boil in a small apartment’s kitchen. It’s the question at the center of Moonlight, a new film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and it’s the line that can best serve as a possible description of what this movie is about. While its scope may be large — touching on themes of identity, masculinity, homosexuality, friendship, family, time and love — one thing about Moonlight remains very clear even after a single viewing: It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
The movie follows the life of one man, the aforementioned Chiron, and it is broken up into three acts: One in childhood, one in high school and one in adulthood.
In childhood, Chiron, called “Little” and played by newcomer Alex Hibbert, is quiet and different from a lot of the kids in his Liberty City neighborhood just outside Miami. He is sensitive and likes to dance in P.E. class. He has few friends outside of the outgoing Kevin (Jaden Kiner).
One day Little meets a man who takes him for something to eat. That man is Juan, played powerfully by Mahershala Ali, a local drug dealer who makes a living off of the high population of addicts in the area, a number that includes Little’s mom (the always-strong Naomie Harris). Juan takes Little under his wing but not in a typical, young-prodigy-peddles-drugs-for-money type of way that we often see in movies. This is a film that never falls victim to a trope like that. Juan simply loves this boy. He looks at him and listens to him and is kind to him. And to Little, that’s everything. Juan teaches him how to swim.
In high school, Chiron, now trying to go by his birth name, is played by Ashton Carter who, like Hibbert, is making his acting debut here in stunning fashion. Still quiet, even more gangly and awkward now, this older Chiron exists with a permanent uncertainty. When he and Kevin end up alone together on a beach one night, there is an opportunity for some kind of clarity. Some kind of comfort.
The adult versions of these two characters, in act three, are some of the most complex men you’ll find on any screen. Chiron, now going by “Black,” is played by Trevante Rhodes and Kevin is played by Andre Holland (read our interview with the two actors here). Holland is a known commodity as he regularly shines on the Cinemax show The Knick. His powerful turn here is no surprise. But Rhodes is relatively unknown and it’s his quietly thunderous performance that will stick with you. He doesn’t speak much, but his facial acting is masterful, each change in countenance packing its own punch. In his eyes you can see Little and Chiron both staring back at you, still scared inside those muscles and gold chains.
While his last film, Medicine for Melancholy, was an exciting debut, this is the movie that will make Barry Jenkins famous. Moonlight is the type of work that makes you gasp at the fact that one person both wrote and directed it. Jenkins had some help with the script, though, as it is an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The beauty of the writing is that it is minimal, yet the entire film crackles with emotion. Chiron barely speaks in all three stages, and Moonlight finds a way to utilize silence both as a haven from words that sting and a weapon made up of the unsaid.
Visually, Jenkins’ work here is exceptional on all levels. In the shaky cam that follows Little as he is chased through a field by a group of bullies — the blue of the sky, green of the grass and black of the boy blending together in motion — or in quieter moments spent capturing the nuance of his character’s faces, from the sweat that builds on their brow to the beginnings of a tear that begin to emerge in their eyes. This kind of precision, in addition to the performances Jenkins gets from this ensemble cast, makes for an experience that can leave you breathless.
It’s a movie that should be seen by the masses but probably won’t (no matter how many awards may come its way in February). In addition to the fact that it doesn’t have any superheroes or robots, some may dismiss it as a gay thing or a black thing or an indie thing or an artsy thing. ‘Not my thing.’
But what Moonlight does transcends all of the dismissive labels a wider public may stick it with. Big picture, it sets a precedent for what kind of stories can be told about the black community through cinema. This isn’t a movie about slavery, civil rights or life on the streets. It’s much more complicated than that. And on a more specific level, Moonlight not only serves as a redefinition of what a black male character can be on the big screen, it paves the way for new views on masculinity itself. Masculinity is complex and nuanced and constantly evolving and difficult and wild and tough and tender. Chiron is all of these things, as honest of a character as you’ll ever see.
Late in the film, an adult Chiron drives his souped-up façade of a car down a Florida road blaring a chopped-and-screwed version of a popular hip-hop hit.
“I’m a classic man,” the stereo proclaims.
The driver leaves his window down and the music makes its way into the night, crisp and loud, impossible to ignore.