“Who is you Chiron? Really, who is you man?”
A young man deals with his dysfunctional home life and comes of age in Miami during the “War on Drugs” era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.
There are moments that you can spend in a theater, that serve as little more than fillers. You buy a ticket and sit in a chair and turn your brain off for a few hours while you escape from the real world. Then there are the moments that are more profound. You are more captivated than entertained by the dazzling images and a story that hold your attention. Then there are the more rare occurrences of absolution and transformation. You have found an incendiary piece of art, that transcends mere entertainment, and eclipses simple captivation. Moonlight is a series of moments that portend to something more significantly progressive than we are perhaps ready to comprehend.
Told through three-tiered vignettes, Moonlight is the sprawling story of Chiron, a young black man whose perception of self, becomes the crux of the narrative. In the first tier we meet “Little” (Alex Hibbert), the adolescent version of Chiron. His nickname is derived from his stature, but also his introversion, which leaves him the victim of bullying. The softness of this chapter is revealed with the deft introduction of Little’s would be father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali), a compassionate drug dealer who mentors the young boy after finding him cowering in a slum. Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), act as the surrogate family to Chiron, whose mother (Naomie Harris), we learn is a drug addicted abuser. This is where the heart of the film bleeds. There are elemental moments of raw magisterial beauty, brooding in their simplicity, exemplified when Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim. When synopsized it all seems so arbitrary, but it’s impossible to encapsulate the emotional resonance of a simple scene between a young boy, and the adult who is guiding him. There is this depth in the regularity, that can’t be described through written word, but can only be experienced. It’s in these moments that director Barry Jenkins delivers a rawness unparalleled. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gon’ be” Juan says softly to Chiron, and this becomes the overt thematic that carries the film.
Fast forward to Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in high school. He’s an awkward, skinny young man, whose jeans are too tight. The bullying has intensified, and Chiron’s timid nature has recoiled him into a reclusive and confused teenager. His mother’s addiction has consumed her, and further fractured their tumultuous relationship. His confusion surrounding his sexual orientation has remained, and his apprehension has only made it more difficult to explore and evolve. This segment exemplifies the atmosphere of the culturized stigma that surrounds the, at the time, taboo topic of homosexuality. This
stigma, mixed with his home life, have forced Chiron to mask his true feelings. This is where innocence is dissolved and the film hardens. Chiron has his first sexual encounter with a young man named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a classmate and childhood friend, who hides his own sexual identity with a misogynistic exterior. All of this only adds to the ambience of frustration, confusion, alleviation, and betrayal. Chiron, and the story, reach a breaking point that causes an epiphany and alters the young man’s course.
Moving ahead to Chiron as a young adult man, now going by the name “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Barely recognizable, he has bulked up, and has redefined himself in the image of his former mentor, Juan. Now a hardened drug dealer in Atlanta, Chiron seems unflinching in his masculinity, until he gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland). This forces Black to reminisce and perhaps even re-evaluate his hollowed persona. His mother has found her own solace at an addiction clinic, where she now works and lives. The relationship between the two, which has now spanned all three tiers, is one of cautionary dissonance, and yet still unbridled tender affection. This is another of the moments, that on the surface seem so ordinary, but carry a heaviness that perfectly envelopes the tense reality that Chiron has created for himself. There is love here, but it’s restrained and tempered from years of grief and abuse. Black finds himself drifting southward towards his former home of Liberty City Miami, and wanders into Kevin’s restaurant. The two exchange a menial greeting and have a celebratory drink. Kevin shares pictures of his child, and explains how he and the mother are estranged. Chiron is reserved, as usual, but that is the beauty of this exchange. Kevin is still the outgoing personality he was from youth, and Chiron is just this empathetic, shy little boy in a man’s body. The two find their way to Kevin’s home, and this is where the film becomes understatedly radiant. Kevin asks the simple question “Who is you Chiron?” and it all becomes shockingly clear. That is the question that he’s never once been able to answer. This is the story of a young black man, who has spent his entire life trying to find himself, and in the arms of the only man who has ever touched him, clarity comes, even in brevity.
There is a serene poetic quality to this story. It’s a film that aches and moans, and writhes in pain. This is one of the most somber tales of true internalized solitary. It’s incredible, to imagine spending your whole life wearing a multitude of faces, none of which are your own, even in self reflection, which is perhaps the most beautifully dismal of the many morals that are methodically presented. Above all, this is a film about relationships, and the deterioration and distortion of self perception. The pure unadulterated gracefulness of the very organic events, are romantically fervent and palpable. So much can be said about the performances, which are all deserving of praise, but the film is so much more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s a remarkably perceptive and intimate portrayal of the struggle for maturation and self discovery. This feels so deeply personal, to a degree where it almost feels invasive to be this close to the characters, and that is it’s brilliance. This is a very layered and textured vision that redefines the very term masculinity. It’s alluring and emotionally resilient, but still grants you passage into a conceptually foreign perspective. Moonlight will literally change you as a person. You will walk out having had new experiences that either affirm or evolve your sensibilities. This is not a niche story, designed for any particular audience. The significance of this film can’t be orally illustrated, just as the moments that comprise it, cannot possibly be ordained by reading a synopsis. This is the equivalent of a rose growing from concrete, a passionately made, reflective portrayal of beauty, gleaned from tragedy. You will remember where you were when you first watched this film. You will remember how it made you feel. You will remember what it did to you. You will remember the moonlit glow exuding from the screen. This is cinematic poetry, and it’s the most important film of this generation.
5/5 EPIC BRO