After over-extending our welcome at Angelika Theater, we — two friends and I — find our respective subway stations and carry ourselves home, shredding the people we were before, remembering who we used to be, and hoping for more moments of tenderness, of softness, on screen and in our own lives.
We have just seen Moonlight; we have just sat and listened to a Q&A with writer-director Barry Jenkins and the fabulous star Naomie Harris; and we are changed. We grasp so many ideas, so many images in the air between us, and try not to forget what we’ve just borne witness to — and we don’t think we will, not with the images from this film sitting behind our eyes.
I was particularly struck by the shot of a beautiful blue beach where waves slide upshore, burying the feet of our young central character, where the Moon plays giant in the sky, where the audience is asked to engage, and never forget, the black queer boy looking back at them; where Chiron asks his future self to return to the water, wash away the pain, and, simply, be. At peace.
Moonlight, described by Jenkins at times as “hood-arthouse coming-of-age LGBT drama,” follows the life of a queer Black boy growing into manhood during the War on Drugs, in ‘80s Liberty City, Miami. This queer coming-of-age poem situates the life of our main character into three distinct chapters, in which he is referred to as Little, Chiron, and Black — at first a child (the brilliant newcomer Alex Hibbert), then a teenager (the empathetic Ashton Sanders), and eventually a grown man (the masterful Trevante Rhodes).
Moonlight is a work of alchemy, a film that is well worth the time, and it has opened the doors to speak about gendered expectations, toxic masculinity, drug addiction, forgiveness, memory, softness, intimacy, where Black men are concerned.
Moonlight in its entirety — not only from the onscreen images widely discussed, but also from its inception, pre-production, and the relationships that made the film happen — through some serendipitous force, is an act of intimacy and empathy. And it is this — more than its justly heralded technical mastery — that makes it not just a superb film, but an essential one.
Moonlight was brought to life in 2013, after Adele Romanski, producer of the film and a friend of Barry’s, encouraged him to read a play manuscript titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, as revealed in this expose on Barry Jenkins. This manuscript was the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney, a brilliant Black and Queer playwright and a MacArthur Genius Fellow. No one knew it then — or no one remembered, rather — but Jenkins and McCraney went to the same elementary school in Liberty City Miami, where both the play manuscript and film are set. Romanski was the bridge for their paths crossing again.
Off an eight-year film hiatus, Jenkins would retreat to Brussels to pen a film adaptation. The original play is semi-autobiographical on McCraney’s part, serving as a reflection piece in the wake of his mother’s death. Barry Jenkins is not queer, but the screenplay of Moonlight, and the overall story of In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, reflect both of their lives.
They met through the production of Moonlight, and dug up what were such uncanny, if not completely mirror, experiences: growing up in households with mothers who were addicted to crack, expressing their masculinity in ways not adherent to hypermasculine boyhood, adopted in some sense by people not related by blood, and born within a year of each other at the start of the War on Drugs, and thus the AIDS epidemic. They lived, at least on paper, the same life. As such, Moonlight is extremely close to both of their hearts; as Tarell McCraney, in this Q&A, says, “there are moments that are so searing in the piece, that mirror the events in real life . . . ”
In other words, what you witness on screen is not just the result of decent collaboration, but of a truly deep understanding of the story, the world, and its characters. This is never required — that a director or writer know, viscerally, through real-lived experience, the lives of their characters (good, honest, respectful research should get you there) — but it certainly does help this quietly spacious engine move forward with nuance and truth.
The visual intimacies of the film immediately get going in the opening — smacking us with smooth camera operation that details how the film will operate. We enter Moonlight on a frame of Juan (played by the super-talented Mahershala Ali) parking his car, blasting a chopped ‘n screwed version of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star.” When Juan gets out, glowing in the Miami sun, the camera follows him, but then flows from Juan to a younger pusher with a thick Miami accent. The camera takes it all in as they dap, exchange small talk, scope the block, and then part ways, circling them both — exploring. No sharp cuts.
When we get to Little, running away from words like “faggot,” the camera circles and leans into his face as well. This is our entry way into the interior life of Little, our beautiful display of the colorful, bright, though it be rough at times Liberty City, and our introduction to Juan.
All the characters, the Black residents, and the space itself, are painted with remarkable care by James Laxton, the DP (Laxton was also cinematographer on Medicine For Melancholy, Barry Jenkins’ first feature film, and is married to Romanski). It is easy to frame the communities we live in harshly and with stillness; to set up a shot of a dilapidated building with a young Black man or two standing nearby, and to make assumptions. But movement — physical movement of the camera through the space — is a reminder that communities where Black people live are still living, and hold heartbeats.
Ultimately, to circle back around to a subject, the way this film often does, is a gentle reminder saying, “I have not forgotten about you,” or “this character’s world, their feelings, are important.” Moonlight is not shy about circling around Little/Chiron/Black, and getting close to the actors’ faces — allowing the emotion in their eyes to spill forth. Nor does the camera shy away from space exploration, moving through with the fluidity of an actual body. The film-esque digital camera Moonlight is shot with — a wide lens/format, which allows environments to sprawl, characters to seem closer to that environment, and us to be closer to the actors — works wonders.
The soundscape, too, begets a sense of closeness. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Jenkins remarks, “I thought it would be interesting to create a character who was retreating within himself, and so as the film goes on he’s speaking less and less.” The movie doesn’t travel through dialogue, but rather through silence.
Picture sitting in the same room with someone and not forcing a conversation, letting the silence linger — maybe with a sibling, parent, close friend, or lover. Now picture how many feature films you’ve seen reflect this very real human exchange — this highly intimate practice.
It’s sad that nine times out of 10, what we receive on screen is intimacy through sex. Laughter is another tool cinema is familiar with, but silence between characters is almost never a part of the equation. This film is a reminder that there can be love and power in silence — as is the case between Little/Chiron/Black and Kevin (Jadin Piner and Jharrel Jerome — both charming). Silence contains the same complexities as the audible; and when dialogue does happen, it is sharp, tender—and most of all, necessary. Like when Little asks Juan and Teresa (electric lady come down from the Moon, Janelle Monae), “what’s a faggot?” Or when an adult Kevin (the captivating and grounded Andre Holland) asks of Black, “Who is you?” The words become gut punches.
The musical score complements the silence: Instead of feeling like it is an ultra-cinematic accent to the various on-screen moments, the score is one with the moments and the characters in this movie. The main theme, called “Little/Chiron/Black’s Theme,” respectively, reprises over many scenes.
“Little’s Theme” is firm, with accents of freedom, while “Chiron’s Theme” is lower in pitch and much more piercing. In the scene where Chiron commits an act of rage, “Chiron’s Theme” is chopped and screwed, and becomes a frightening, drawn out, isolated piece — I felt this moment in my stomach.
I remember feeling, so truly, similar feelings to Chiron in my younger years; and this is the only film I can think of that expresses that kind of rage and misunderstanding and sadness, that longing for the world to stop beating you, for the people who are supposed to love you and that you are supposed to love back to stop chipping away at your well-being. It’s the feeling that comes from being called “faggot” and “gay” and “burnt” and “too black,” and of being told that sitting and walking certain ways were, disgustingly so, “for girls.”
Moonlight is important because it lives in the feeling of being Black and queer and man all at the same time — in a world where men are supposed to be loud, rough, and super straight, Chiron is super quiet, soft, and quite queer in his desires. Moonlight was the first time I saw that part of my life explored on film: More than revealing the physical intimacies and attractions, it exposed the internal emotional baggage, the weight of carrying the shame of being a Black boy experiencing a boyhood outside of the boyhood.
I was never moved to the physical violence that Chiron deals to his bully. I didn’t have so much anger toward my bullies as I did absolute hate for myself. My strategy was to curl further into myself, taking solace in the love and healing I received from friends — but I would be lying if I said I never dreamed of transforming my internal scars and aches and embarrassment onto physical bodies.
And that’s what it is about this movie: Moonlight carries what’s Black and beautiful and Black and painful and Black and emotional as its core. Given that Black boys lose so much of their well-being in pursuit of some emotional sterility, in pursuit of a patriarchal and heteronormative masculine identity, a big film that colors Black men in softness is extremely necessary. It’s works like Moonlight that maybe can reach younger Black boys, and encourage a change in aspiration, from hardened to vulnerable. That is my hope, of course. The music, the silence, is there to emphasize this — providing a roadmap for feelings the characters inhabit.
Up and down the film, the actors are peak magnificent. They portray, and slay, authentic, real-world relationship dynamics, and model empathy at work. Trevante Rhodes as Black brings every iteration of Chiron together through one tool: his eyes. Watching him, you understand weight and heaviness and sorrow; his performance conjures everything we learn about both Little and Chiron, and breaks off into something distinctly beautiful.
Naomie Harris discussed in the Q&A I sat in on how reading and doing research for Paula helped her gain empathy and understanding for people suffering through drug addictions, noting further for Deadline:
Naomie, who shot all of her scenes in three days, is also the only actor in the film to work with all three actors portraying Chiron; Janelle Monáe, who makes her feature film acting debut, told Billboard, “The script had me crying as soon as I read it—I knew these characters”; and Mahershala Ali, too, cries when he talks about the film, saying to Deadline, it’s “about getting it true . . . it’s a project that is written from the inside out.”
Smaller real-life relationships carry over into the film; Andre Holland and Tarell McCraney have worked together before, and both Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner are actually acting students of Tanisha Cidel, the woman who plays the high school principal.And in the scene where Juan is teaching Little how to swim, what you’re actually watching is Ali teaching Hibbert how to swim — a young Black boy learning how to swim, in the ocean, under the guiding hands of an older Black man.
It’s these tiny miracles and stories that make me want to see the film a third and fourth and fifth time. It seems it was meant to be this way, that Moonlight was bound for birth; and after seeing it, we are all bound for reflection and change.
Moonlight queers the coming-of-age narrative. You can see this in its operations, in its priority of feeling, in its priority of the fluid relationship Kevin and Chiron share (they are not defined on screen as a romantic couple, and yet they also share experiences that we are taught to regard as lines that friends do not cross), and in its priority to non-romantic relationships, like family and most importantly adopted/chosen family. Taught to silo our relationships with strict guidelines and white-cisgender-heteronormative blueprints, Black men largely — and I’m speaking as a Black queer/bisexual man — are stripped of the fluidity in human contact until some moment of unlearning.
So often are romance, intimacy, and sex bottled up together to mean, and impose, domination, that the allowing of true intimacy — a myriad of things that don’t adhere to binary roles — remains unspeakable, if not foreign. I hope for Black boys all across the spectrum to shed masks they might be wearing, to wade in the water of their most authentic selves, and to glow in their Moon-kissed skin.
Janelle Monae, one of my favorite musical artists, calls her music video/short films “Emotion pictures,” and I would say Moonlight earns that title. I left Angelika theater thinking about Little, the young Black boy looking back at me, and thinking about my younger self. I felt not like I had seen a fantasy, but that I had been called to be further accountable for the real life I live — and that’s love. That’s Moonlight (the words of McCraney, the words of Jenkins, the stellar performances by the cast, and all the crew folk) looking out for the humanity in us.
Decolonization is the dream, and we must remember that Moonlight elevates these intimacies, and does not create them; that Tarell McCraney was, in fact, taught to ride a bike by a neighborhood drug dealer in Liberty City; and that the drug dealer matters as much as the innocent student.
Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature film does not disappoint, and I have to say thank you to him, because without his work, without Medicine for Melancholy, I’m not sure I would be making films. I have to say thank you, because here, in Moonlight, every nigga is a star.
This piece by Vernon Jordan, III originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.
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