FilmScene — through Thursday, Dec. 1
Loud American cars can sometimes suggest loud, American problems. The opening scenes of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight feature Mahershala Ali as Juan, a high-placed drug dealer, rolling onto a typical drug corner in a growling, powder blue Chevy Impala with massive rims and an equally massive cd collection mounted on the driver’s side visor. This is late ’80s Miami, with all the stereotypical problems of that era in American inner cities — drugs, addiction, absentee parenting, poverty, homophobia etc. It is not a great place to be coming of age as a fragile, quiet black boy who is beginning to question his own sexuality and almost everything else in his life.
We first meet Chiron running through this scene, fleeing from some other kids who are trying to beat him up. He eventually accepts Juan’s assistance, first with escape and then with a meal which he desperately devours. It is apparent from the outset that Chiron’s life is chaotic, with not many friends, a crack-addicted mom and no father. His friendship with this criminal and his girlfriend Teresa, played by the remarkable Janelle Monáe, in many ways saves his life, and structures the remainder of the film.
Moonlight is inspired by Tarell McCraney’s play, In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, and is divided into three different chapters about various stages in Chiron’s life, each titled according to the nickname that he was given at the time — “Little,” “Chiron” and “Black.”
The structure of the film is challenging, and Jenkins takes on the difficult task of using different actors to play the main character at different points in his life, as well as to play ancillary characters that are crucial to his inner changes. Strong acting throughout holds this approach together and makes us overlook the fact that the older versions of Chiron do not really look much like the younger ones. Especially impressive are Ashton Sanders as the teenaged Chiron and André Holland as the older version of his teenage friend and casual lover, Kevin, whom he visits unexpectedly in the film’s emotional climax.
Despite this focus on the passage of time and the emotional and physical changes that accompany it, Moonlight is also concerned with using small details within each scene to lend depth and authenticity to the development of Chiron’s character. In each of its chapters, Moonlight presents one or two interactions or conversations that frame Chiron’s development and in some way change his life forever — asking Juan over a meal in his home what “faggot” means, talking with Kevin on the beach after dark, dropping in on him years later at the diner where he works, taking time away from his adult job as a drug dealer to visit his mother at her rehab facility.
Though the scenes are stripped down, the world of Moonlight is complex. Viewers may be reminded of many of the characters from David Simon’s The Wire from last decade — it’s the only story handling similar subject matter with this much subtlety and a similarly granular focus (though Moonlight may capture, with a few strong actors and a little under 2 hours, what it took Simon 5 seasons to portray.)
Unlike Simon, Jenkins seems entirely uninterested in the external politics of any of this, as if the point of view itself is an indictment of the social system that it represents — mass incarceration, misapplied drug laws, poverty, addiction and homophobia. The fact that the characters do not comment on any of these problems explicitly is itself a political statement: This is how the world is and, for poor black males, life must somehow be lived and enjoyed within it.
This approach is utterly different from what many of our media outlets have been telling us recently. Commentators on the election have told us that its results point to the fact that we are a more divided country now that we thought we were. Jenkins would probably disagree. While Moonlight is almost certainly not a story with which many Trump voters would readily identify, it very much makes the point that stark divisions of race, class, social environment, isolation and sexual identity have been around for some time — it’s just that most white people didn’t acknowledge them. Jenkins’ film, while utterly depressing and discouraging in parts, nonetheless makes the optimistic argument that much of human experience may be relatable across these divisions.
Despite the instability and noise of the world it portrays, Moonlight is a very quiet film. No guns are fired, no cars screech through city streets and, while the violence which is portrayed is very real, it serves as the context for the emotional action, not as the action itself. This quiet is no doubt part of Jenkins’ point: that films about African American life in the US are seldom this subdued and seldom quiet the soundtrack long enough to absorb the inner conflicts with which these characters must come to grips.
The fact that I reach this conclusion while watching a film with no speaking roles for white people in a theater without a single black audience member may not be a reason for optimism, but Jenkins’ achievement most certainly is.
Moonlight is currently playing at FilmScene. It runs through Thursday, Dec. 1. Tickets are $6.50–9.