With so many Oscar nominations on its back, and a year of commotion and polemics, Moonlight is praised for bravely attaching the three controversial notions to its name: sexuality, masculinity, and black life in the US. Despite knowing this before you watch it, nothing prepares you for what Moonlight really is.
2016 was far too tragic a year for marginalized communities in the US, and 2017 is not picking up on a particularly positive note. This provoked a surge in activism and documentation of the lives and realities of these communities. However, while there have been many accounts of the story and importance of #BlackLivesMatter, or tributes to the Black Panther days, no one had dared to hit the dangerously delicate, complex and painful intersection of race, sexuality and masculinity, until Barry Jenkins. Moonlight is unapologetic, there to break all of your comfort zones and echo chambers, and to claim a space for desperately-needed discussion.
The story spreads out across the three stages of Chiron’s life, played initially by Alex Hibbert, a black boy growing up in Miami with an abusive, drug-addicted mother, and constant bullying at school. He is first introduced as running to escape the bullies, locking himself up in an abandoned building. Barely three minutes into the film, the bitter mix of fear and frustration let you know that what you are about to watch will be anything but comfortable and sugar-coated. Chiron is found by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes him in with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), offering him a refuge of care and friendship. He oscillates between the warmth of their home, and the terror of his own, where his mother Paula (Naomi Harris) can be anything from possessively caring, to neurotic and neglecting. He passes his time in silence, eating away at his inner self, until he asks Juan what a ‘faggot’ means. Before he is even in middle school, Chiron is hit with realities too big for his young emotions: that his sexuality is different, that his mother is a crack addict, that Juan is supplying her, that his life will only get more difficult.
The second chapter gives us Chiron as a teenager, played by Ashton Sanders, ever as silent, but this time with a glint of knowing and pain-filled wisdom in his eyes, his sole quest to survive. From where he stands, there seems to be nothing in his future that can help him escape, so he lives day by day swallowing down tears, until one night he runs into his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The magic of that encounter offers Chiron the first moment of sincere gratitude and comfort, and for the first time, 60 minutes into the film, we see him smile, the faintest of smiles. This shared happiness is short-lived, however, as the next day Kevin succumbs to hazing and peer pressure and punches Chiron to the ground, the ultimate proof of masculinity. The two look at each other deeply with a mixture of pain, disappointment and humiliation as Kevin bloodies Chiron’s face. The episode ends with Chiron being arrested, and nothing is said but the most soul-tearing look shared between the two.
The last chapter then really throws what no one would see coming, Chiron as an adult, the coup de grace. Now played by Trevante Rhodes, he has shed all signs of his meek self. A built-up, muscular drug dealer, the only way to recognise him is to look for the fleeting moments of faint gentleness in his eyes. His shell has grown as thick as his golden chains. He makes you want to protest against the world that makes him bleed, and against yourself for being romantic and naive enough to be surprised.
The most impressive element however is not the storyline, nor Chiron’s transformation. It is the prevalent and mysterious sense of heartbreaking beauty that finds itself even in the most difficult of scenes. The electricity whenever Chiron manages to find a pocket of honesty and peace is overwhelming – a feeling that he is always able to convey just with his eyes. That, is paired with the incredible colour palette of deep teal, warm red and golden light and James Laxton’s excellent camera work. It is as confusing as it is captivating, when it both confirms and shatters stereotypes, when it reminds you that you’re miles away and helpless, yet lets you feel the characters deeply under your skin. It doesn’t hide the darkness of solitude, alienation and the crushing weight of imposed masculinity. Yet it hands you the heaviest weight of vulnerability and forces you to hold it rather than shuffle and look away in discomfort.
The reunion Kevin and Chiron in the third chapter is exceptional, and the nuanced finesse in their performance is exquisite. Trevante Rhodes plays the embodiment of tough, without becoming a caricature. Andre Holland only ever utters a quiet ‘sorry’, yet he exudes love and repentance. He manages to convey regret and embarrassment, along with understanding and almost forgiving who Chiron has become. Chiron gradually sheds that, very slowly and with no hint of Hollywood magic, making for an unbelievable performance. Jenkin again hands you two crushing opposing forces, as you feel both ache and gratitude. When all else fades, the chemistry and naked honesty between the two is breathtaking.
With a film crafted so elegantly and intelligently, Jenkin sits you down and makes you listen to a story of damage that resonates both with those who have shared Chiron’s struggle, and also surprisingly, those who have not. And it is precisely because of that reason Moonlight is crucial to watch, whether you are in New York or in Hong Kong. While it will surely receive a standing ovation at the Oscars, Moonlight rises above that and wins the hearts of even its most improbable audiences.
Writer: Sara Furxhi
Editor: Harriet Lai
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