Barry Jenkins’ gut-wrenching drama 'Moonlight' illuminates a unique racial and sexual struggle

Serious Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ gut-wrenching drama 'Moonlight' illuminates a unique racial and sexual struggle
Photo courtesy of A24

The sun shines brightly on people of privilege. But if you're meek, poor, black or gay, you might have to settle for moonlight.

Chiron is all four. And in Moonlight, which offers three glimpses of his life – childhood, adolescence and adulthood – he must come to terms with not just his tough Miami environment, but also himself as a gay black man. Regrettably, he's not often up to the task, but writer-director Barry Jenkins is. And with his second feature, Jenkins has created required viewing for anyone seeking to understand the African-American experience.

With his father absent and his mother too drug-addled to cope, Chiron befriends Juan (Mahershala Ali), who, despite his own poor life choices, becomes a father figure to Chiron. The character is thoroughly believable thanks to Ali, who channels the same kindness, vulnerability and humanity he showed as Tizzy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and as Remy in House of Cards.

"We's the first on this planet," Juan tells Chiron, bolstering his sense of racial pride. But, sensing that, even at a young age, Chiron might be struggling with his sexuality, he advises him, "At some point, you gotta decide for yourself what you wanna be."

Those words, though not particularly well-written, are meant to inspire. But Moonlight is not an overtly inspirational film. It's more a movie of hopelessness, of lost moments, of resignation to one's station in life. And when, in the movie's final section, Chiron is reunited with a dear childhood friend, Kevin, the encounter becomes reminiscent of (though, admittedly, not as bleak as) the final meeting of Wilma and Bud in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass.

John Greenleaf Whittier, in his poem "Maud Muller," tackled a similar theme. "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been," he wrote. We can only hope Chiron is able to write a happy epilogue to Jenkins' gut-wrenching tale.

Chiron is played well by three actors of varying ages, and the resemblance between the child (Alex Hibbert) and the teenager (Ashton Sanders) is striking. Trevante Rhodes is also competent as the eldest Chiron, but it's André Holland, as Kevin, who powers the film to its climax after it loses steam two-thirds of the way in. Besting them all, however, is Naomie Harris as Chiron's mother, whose powerhouse performance could earn her a supporting-actress Oscar nomination.

Moonlight is shot well with a mix of handheld, Steadicam and traditional camera, and scored with a refreshingly original mix of classical, Motown and hip-hop, but the film's technical achievements are secondary to its interesting characterizations and unique story. Some viewers might be bored by the slow pace or frustrated with the three-part structure, which omits enormous chunks of Chiron's life. But if you're patient enough to stick with it, the emotional payoffs are profound.

The aforementioned Whittier also wrote that "sweet hope lies deeply buried from human eyes." But for Chiron and all those who share a similar story, hope might instead be hiding in plain sight. It just might take a little moonlight to find it.

4 out of 5 stars

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