A young, gay, black man’s coming-of-age story is receiving rave reviews
By Yasmin Seneviratne
I’m not a movie critic—I wish I had the depth of knowledge to review Moonlight in the context of what’s come before it, or even in relation to writer and director Barry Jenkins’ first feature film (2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), which I have not seen. Instead, anything I offer is going to read like a straight-up love letter from someone who was rendered emotionally vulnerable after watching a screening of Moonlight, and as someone who has been unable to resist reading and thinking about the film in the time since. I’m qualified only to point out some of the film’s magic.
Jenkins’ Moonlight, loosely adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is an exquisite coming-of-age drama that chronicles one man’s journey to become his true self. As the film unfolds in three acts, we watch a lonely young black man grow up before our eyes.
In the first segment of the film, we meet a boy named Little (Alex Hibbert) who lives in a poor part of Miami, is harassed at school and is alienated from his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). The second segment of the film shows our protagonist, now an alienated teenager going by his given name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), grappling with his budding identity. The third segment of the film picks up some 10 years later when Chiron, now called Black (Trevante Rhodes) has become a mid-level drug dealer in Atlanta.
Jenkins and his extraordinary cast gift us with an all-too-rare picture of African-American characters in complex, deeply intimate relationships ranging from pubescent males exploring homosexual attraction to a drug-addicted mother. We’re spared the clichés; morally conflicted characters embrace sexual ambiguity with ease, victims find their own redemption—and I was left thinking about how that redemption looked rather more like acceptance than apology.
It may sound generous to declare every single performance a knockout, but it’s true. The three actors who portray Chiron all deliver powerful performances, but Mahershala Ali (who plays Juan, a Miami drug kingpin), Naomie Harris, André Holland (Chiron’s friend Kevin) and R&B singer Janelle Monáe (Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa) in particular deliver mesmerizing performances.
And it’s not just the performances: every scene is gorgeous too. When Jenkins was asked why he had worked with a white man (James Laxton) as cinematographer when all of the actors are black, Jenkins replied, “he [Laxton] gets it.” The two made deliberate choices to create a realistic look: not using powder and allowing the characters to sweat, as one would in Miami; shooting in the areas of Miami where Jenkins grew up and was familiar with the light. The end result is raw, yet anything but gritty.
The movie’s score is worth calling out specifically. In the Q&A that followed a TIFF screening in September, iconic director Jonathan Demme raised his hand from the audience to praise the film (!) and to ask about the sound design. Jenkins explained with excitement that he worked closely with composer Nick Britell, who employed the Southern hip-hop ‘chop and screw’ technique for the instrumental sounds. The technique is basically about slowing down and distorting music, and aside from making the already moving pieces positively breathtaking, it’s a nod to the roots of this tale.
Sound aside, allowance is made for incredible amounts of silence—and it’s in these silent moments that the viewers make their most intimate connection to the characters they are watching. Many of the film’s most powerful moments happen as the camera sits with the characters in silence and the audience is left to watch their thoughts pass across their faces. In the same Q&A, when asked how Jenkins so successfully cast three separate Chirons, he said that, aside from casting actors who felt the same when he looked in their eyes, he knew these three could be comfortable playing silence.
Silence, sounds, stunning visuals and breakout performances in an anything-but-typical film…only the rewards outweigh the reasons to see Moonlight.
Jenkins’ Moonlight is playing in select theatres across the country now.
YASMIN SENEVIRATNE is a Producer in Toronto and the Publisher of Le Sauce Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @yasminATlesauce and Instagram at @yasminseneviratne.