Barry Jenkins is certainly not the first filmmaker to take on the subjects of urban poverty, drug violence and black masculinity.
There is a long and illustrious history of films that have examined the bleak realities of life under the humiliating and emasculating condition of multi-generational poverty, of black lives cut short or permanently scarred by unending cycles of gang violence, of the stubborn dignity of the women and men who struggle through seemingly insurmountable odds.
My personal favorite among these is Menace II Society, by Allen and Albert Hughes, which still rings true more than 20 years later. Many others — John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood, Spike Lee’s Clockers, and F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton — have spoken truthfully to the ongoing racist violence of poverty and its violent con- sequences, particularly for young black men.
Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight is unlike any of these films.
The film looks and feels entirely and utterly new, not even vaguely referencing those previous films in whose tradition it sits. While the milieu of Moonlight shares some things in common with these treatments — we know that this world is perilous and violent — there are no shoot outs, no blood on the street, no fatal confrontation between friends or rivals and, most importantly, no clear resolution or message. Structurally and tonally, it holds more in common with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood than Boyz in the Hood.
The film’s surprising and unconventional aesthetic likely has something to do with its genesis. It is adapted from a play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Jenkins’ fellow Miamian Tarell Alvin McCraney. Without the ability to overwhelm an audience through spectacle, a play must often convey its meaning and power through an economy of language and gesture.
The pause can be as important as the word. Structure is all. The best plays frequently have the feel of music or poetry, and as one watches this masterpiece unfold, at times it feels like listening to a symphony or a deeply soulful jazz concert. Jenkins’ film adaptation loses none of the play’s musical, poetic or theatrical qualities, and adds to them the intimacy and visual refinement of the finest fimmaking.
The drama unfolds in three acts, following the characters of Chiron and his friend Kevin as they grow up, grow apart, then come back together again. Each act is strong enough to stand on its own as a short film, but in combination, they form a powerful and unsentimental story about masculinity, sexuality, survival and friendship.
In the first act we meet a young Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert) who suffers at the hands of bullies for reasons that he doesn’t yet understand, but which he has begun to suspect are rooted in his difference. He finds refuge with a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who defy stereotype in their unconditional acceptance of Chiron’s nascent homosexuality. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) has begun the downward trajectory of drug addiction. In one of the more powerful scenes of the film, the young and very introverted Chiron asks Juan: “Does my mama do drugs? Do you sell drugs?” Juan’s affirmative answers are not treated as a horror revealed or a betrayal of trust, as they might be in other films. It is the stark, harsh and inevitable reality of their two lives. It is neither melodramatic nor trivial. It is painful.
Juan’s absence from the second act is treated in a similarly unsentimental manner. When the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) needs a place to crash due to his mother’s now-severe drug problems, he takes refuge with Teresa at the home that she shared earlier with Juan, who is now gone. He might be in prison; he might have been killed. It doesn’t come up. In the intervening years, Chiron’s mother’s addiction isn’t the only thing that’s gotten worse. His difference is more evident now. To the alpha boys at his high school he is a sissfied “faggot,” for which he is mercilessly bullied. He is sullen and withdrawn within a world that is hostile to his very existence. His only friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who has adjusted into his own social role — the jokester/clown — more easily than Chiron. Their intimate encounter in the film is treated in much the same way as other important moments: unsentimental and emotionally true. The ensuing betrayal and Chiron’s violent response, which lands him in prison, is the central tragedy of the lm.
The consequences of Chiron’s adolescent violence are a stark reminder of what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like, the foreclosing of possibility that marks the lives of black men in this society. The film’s third act finds Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) in Atlanta, nearly unrecognizable as a drug dealer not so different from Juan, but without a lover of his own. Ten years have passed, and we can only guess at what Chiron has been through. His affect is absolutely flat, emotionless, dead. He goes about his business with the calm assurance of someone accustomed to violence. But a phone call from Kevin (now played by André Holland), seemingly out of the blue, unsettles all this.
The harrowing emotional power of this third act stems from how true the film remains to the specificity of its characters and their stories. It is an unflinching look at black men whose lives are profoundly shaped by external forces that simply and brutally limit their agency. I felt sadness, shame and outrage as the film came to its tender conclusion, but more than any of these, I felt a kind of gratitude for being invited to bear witness to these lives.