A rough neighbourhood of a big city – populated with negligent parents, local bullies, drug dealers – singles out its children for abuse. That city in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is Miami, one of the many children a kid called Chiron (Alex Hibbert). Slight, meek and scared, Chiron often gets picked on in school. The reason for that is simple: Chiron is different; he stands out. His classmates call him “faggot”. If they feel charitable, they call him “Little”. A gay African-American kid in a black school, Little is a minority among minorities. But if school feels suffocating, then so does home, with a mother addicted to crack, who cares less about her son, more about her next fix.
Little will keep getting bullied till he figures out who he is, what he wants. His mother will keep lying dazed till she finds out who she is not. But that’s precisely her misfortune, of being a parent, for her self-abuse isn’t just hers. She has transferred her anxieties and insecurities to her son, who, as a kid, is forced to become an adult much before his time and will, a confused man in the bony frame of a child.
But this world isn’t just cruel or grim. Every now and then, it shines moments of compassion and friendship, shared on a playground or beach, centred on meanings of identity, of finding oneself. In one such scene, a boy named Kevin asks Little why he’s such a softie, unable to stand against his bullies. It’s probably the first time someone his age has considered Little worthy of conversation. In another, Juan, a local crack dealer, Little’s new friend, says, “At some point you gonna decide who you want to be. Can’t let no one make that decision for you.”
Little grows up to be Chiron – or at least gets called by that name as a teenager – who, as an adult, morphs into Black, a drug dealer in Atlanta, much like Juan. Characters in Moonlight are condemned to repeat the life choices they once despised, forever caught in a loop that only gets stronger and bigger. In this world, mistakes aren’t forgiven, rather held on to and preserved. Here, the past hasn’t been forgotten; it’s very much alive and alert, though pretending to be passive, like a room filled with inflammable gas, waiting for the strike of a match.
Divided into three chapters – Little, Chiron and Black – Moonlight is a fascinating examination of the self, an inquiry into the difficulties of escaping one’s past and a commentary on maintaining relationships in historically disadvantaged communities, where self-preservation and social acceptance are the only means to survive. Above all, Moonlight is informed by constant disruptions. The moment a relationship finds its rhythm, finds some semblance of hope and stability, something makes it fall apart: whether it’s the bond between Little and Juan, Chiron and Kevin, or Black and Little and Chiron (a man trying to come to terms with himself, trying to reconcile the past, his childhood and adolescence, with the present).
Spread over different time periods and locations, every chapter informed by a distinct mood, featuring different actors (Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) playing the lead, Moonlight is masterfully held together by Jenkins. What’s particularly impressive, nearly nothing in this film seems superfluous – echoes of a key scene, and there are several, can be felt across chapters, tying the past and present in one inextricable knot. As if Moonlight seems to be saying that the keys to unlocking Black is tucked in the hands of Little and Chiron, for they don’t leave him alone, don’t let him be. Which is why its final shot – reminiscent of François Truffaut’s 400 Blows – rings true, encapsulating its motifs, showing a director in sync with his film, its emotional pulse.
Jenkins follows the different versions of Black with a lot of perseverance, detailing, at times hinting, what aspect of his character has changed and what has not. The grownup Black is muscular, looks intimidating, shuts his underling up, stands his own against his mother. And yet he’s unchanged in many crucial ways. Jenkins’s understanding of Black is impressive and he stays faithful to him, at times a little too faithful, as a result Moonlight is much like its central character: reserved, low-key, quiet. So some portions of the film seem dramatically inert, but a different – more overtly affecting – tone would have separated the film from its lead. Which makes sense, for Moonlight is the kind of world where forgetting and forgiving takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, hollowing out those devastated by love, resigned to hold nothing but thorny fragments of desire.