Being a heterosexual man, it can be difficult at times to be moved by films that portray the intense struggles of a gay man. Barry Jenkins’ new film Moonlight is one of those rare gay films that managed to move me so much. What looked like a standard coming-of-age drama at first is revealed to be something that is fresh and non-preachy. It manages to accomplish so much with so little. This is a story about a man who is not just gay but black and poor as well. At once graceful and poetic, the film avoids long sermons, clichés and conveys a lot through contemplative silences and minimal dialogues.
And given the nature of the protagonist – a young, extremely introverted and shy black man named Chiron, you shouldn’t expect him to say a lot. His demeanor and expressions do most of the talking – and three actors of three different age groups play him in three chapters of his life which take place over the course of 15 years, with each named after the three different names that he is known by – Little, Black, and Chiron. Jenkins names the third chapter ‘Chiron’ fittingly because it’s the one in which he discovers who he really is.
The first chapter ‘Little’ gives us a glimpse of his childhood – it begins with the little Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert) running away from bullies because they seem to have quickly developed the maturity to figure out that he is a “faggot”. His mother (Naomi Harris) happens to be a crack addict and loves spending time in the company of other men. There is no sign of a father. However, he finally finds a surrogate father in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a sympathetic drug dealer living in the same neighborhood who, we later learn, is also the supplier of his mother’s drugs.
Little finds this out, of course, but he still continues to see Juan as a mentor and along the way gets a few pointers on life. Juan tells Little that the word ‘faggot’ is used by those who taking pleasure in making gay people feel bad. Little doesn’t know if he is gay yet but most people seem to be sure of it, including his own mother. They have noticed the signs. It’s when he gets to high school that he becomes convinced that he really is. The attacks from the bullies continue – different children, this time. Thus begins the chapter ‘Black’/teen Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders), which is the nickname given to him by his first love, a boy studying in the same school.
This chapter ends with a burst of violence and the next time we see him, he is finally the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) – a full grown, “hard” drug dealer just like Juan. When he receives a phone call from an old buddy one night, he makes a life-altering decision that would possibly give him the answers that he had trouble finding on his own. Jenkins’ script, based on a play by Tarell McCraney, is not particularly heavy and gives enough breathing room for the characters, enveloping us in their solitude and allowing the viewer to gauge their true feelings. You won’t see the usual stereotypical portrayal of black guys here that you usually see in most American movies.
These are sensitive men who are struggling for acceptance in a society that expects them to behave in a certain way. These are men who are trying to run away from not just the society but themselves as well. They find comfort in the darkness and take great delight in those rare moments where someone holds their hand delicately and shows them the light. I must mention something about the beautiful soundtrack – one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. Jenkins has an excellent taste in music. I was so glad to see Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” and Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead” in it – both veritable classics.