Starring Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes
Written by: Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Rated ‘R’ for language, sexuality and some violence
Runtime 111 minutes
Love is patient and kind. Love is a many splendored thing. All you need is love. It is the desire of every human, in a way. It is a different thing to different people and no definition is the same. Love, in all its horror, in all its glory, is the stuff of drama, poetry and all art. Here we are, thousands of years into civilization and we are certain we’ve seen love in all its form.
I assure you, we have not. In what is the last great frontier – a socially acceptable cone of silence – few films, few artistic endeavors (in this white writer’s limited experience) have successfully told a tale of black male homosexuality. In spite of or perhaps because of the way the world is, Moonlight shines down upon us, illuminating a landscape unknown and uncomfortable. The film does not preach, does not proselytize; it simply asks you to walk under its gaze and bask in its warmth.
The first thing we see in the film is Juan, the gorgeous Mahershala Ali, driving through the streets of Miami. In these moments, he is the Black Man; at least, our (read: white America’s) notions of all that is presupposed with that label. He drives a nice car, he wears a Do-rag, he slings dope and listens to hardcore rap. Ali is a rising star, but do not be fooled – this movie does not belong to him. The fierce, intense masculinity presented by Ali is counterbalanced by our actual star, the young boy Chiron (played in youth by Alex Hibbert). Small, timid and, as we soon learn, gay; he is beaten and abused and for the life of him, he doesn’t understand why.
What follows is a look at several key moments in Chiron’s life, all some tangentially related to ‘moonlight’. Played by three different actors (all of whom are brilliant), we watch Chiron age and learn, first realizing his nature, later giving into it and being punished for existing and finally, accepting it – albeit begrudgingly. Inside him, there is a storm and harnessing it is difficult; the culture in which he is raised is devastatingly cruel to people like him. The homophobic tendencies in the black community have been well documented. But this is not a condemnation or condoning of it. Moonlight shines its light onto a small, intimate and personal story of love and desire. One that is relatable to anyone of any skin color. The struggle for love, to be loved, is a universal truth. Writer/director Barry Jenkins understands this. He fills Moonlight with moments of everyday grace and courage. A man makes another man dinner and it is the most wonderfully daring and beautiful love letter you will see this year. To love is a risk, but to love when society deems you ‘less than’, now that is bravery.
And it doesn’t always work. For Chiron, the love, the connection, he has with Kevin (also played by three separate actors) is disastrous and painful and filled with betrayal. But it is still there. The heart wants what the heart wants. Watching them fumble through their emotions – characters burdened with the triple emotional wall of being male, being colored and being gay – cannot help but relate to one’s own navigation of love’s treacherous waters. And the bigger the struggle, the bigger the catharsis at the end when it all comes together in a simple, quiet moment.
Nothing much happens in Moonlight. There are a lot of long looks, words said and more importantly, words unsaid. For that, people will turn away; it’s a ‘talky film’ they would grumble and check in to the latest blockbuster. Their choice, and their loss. In a world more divided than ever, where we struggle to find the common humanity in even our neighbors, Moonlight is a crucial part of the puzzle. Everyone looks the same under the pale moonlight.
And deep down, maybe, just maybe…we are the same.