Based on the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, director Barry Jenkins adapts McCraney’s story into a superbly intimate depiction of a disenfranchised outsider, in the form of a young gay black man Chiron. Jenkins has created a flawless three-part masterpiece that deals with Chiron’s childhood of neglect, his bullied teenage years and, finally, as a repressed twenty-something adult. Events unfolding within these timeframes are presented in a stunning fashion - while often a heartbreaking story - it is seen through a soft, sun-drenched lens.
Both Jenkins and McCraney, coincidently, grew up in Miami, specifically the Liberty Square projects, (and yet didn't meet until adulthood) which explains the meticulous care to portray everything realistically and yet still very pleasing to the eye. Scenes are gorgeously rich with character, showered with copious amounts of bright light from Miami’s tropical sun; its endless light blue skies and sandy beaches. There is an effortless fluidity as one scene merges with the next and the continuous use of close-ups manage to give unique warmth and a laid-back vibe, almost in spite of the tragic circumstances which descend upon Chiron.
As depicted on the film’s poster, Chiron is played by three different actors. We are introduced to Chiron at aged 10 (Alex R. Hibbert). “Little” is trying to flee from persistent school bullies. He finds refuge in an abandoned flat, only to be found by the areas drug lord, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Feeling sorry for Chiron, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) take the little boy under their wing, later learning his neglect at the hands of his single, crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris). We then see Chiron in his teenage years (played, this time, by Ashton Sanders) succumbing to ore relentless bullying by his unscrupulous classmates. His mother has fallen further into drug addiction and becomes more abusive.
It is, during this period, that Chiron comes to terms with his sexuality, sharing his first experience with school friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Kevin soon after turns on Chiron, attacking him after being coerced by the bullies. Deeply hurt and full of rage, Chiron retaliates by attacking his oppressors and is then sent to juvenile prison. Fast forward to a twenty-something Chiron (Trevante Rhodes). He is still introverted but has become hardened by life and is now musclebound with a tough exterior and, like Juan, makes a healthy living out of dealing drugs. His sexuality is very much repressed and it is not until a random call from childhood friend Kevin (having grown into André Holland) that brings it all back.
Teenage Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders produces the standout performance. He has the meatier of the three acts, as it is within these years that Chiron endures intense and life changing experiences. Sanders possess a stillness and passiveness which is very much fitting for this alienated teenager. Mahershala Ali (House of Cards), is charming as the incredibly handsome and statuesque Juan. His soft interior is contradictory to his muscular, towering and imposing exterior. Naomie Harris is equally superb as the conflicted drug-addled mother, conveying Paula’s erratic guilt-ridden behaviour perfectly; battling an escalating crack addiction along with her tendency to neglect and abuse.
With Moonlight, Jenkins has managed to create a piece of work that is truly exquisite. The film is aesthetically stunning and delivers a highly captivating if simple script, with stellar performances by all cast members. Most importantly it is Jenkins’ ability at conjuring up strong emotions and creating empathy within the viewer. Most can relate to outsider Chiron and the unfairness and heartbreak he endures.
Moonlight is released in the UK on the 17th February 2017.
Barry Jenkins's exquisite film Moonlight is a beautiful, tragic, coming-of-age story.