Moonlight is at once exactly the movie you expect and something more. The trailer sets up a coming-of-age story about a young man discovering his identity and his sexuality while growing up in the ghettos of Miami. I didn’t say the young man is black, because it’s worth pointing out this characteristic on its own. It’s worth noting that every character in the movie is black, and yet none of them ever talk about being black, which is how you know this isn’t a Hollywood movie. It’s worth observing that the man who wrote and directed this movie, along with much of its crew, is black, yet they have made a movie in which blackness is not a condition of uniqueness that needs to be examined, but the norm.
Anyway, Moonlight is exactly the movie you expect, because it is indeed a coming-of-age story about a young black man, Chiron, in the ghetto of Miami. We meet him as a boy, played by Alex Hibbert. We watch him befriend a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). We watch him get bullied by the other boys at school, one of whom, Kevin, tries to be his friend. We watch him discover that his mother (Naomie Harris) does drugs.
We meet Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in the next act in high school. He’s still bullied, and his mother’s addiction to crack has worsened. Juan is out of the picture, though he still gets help from Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), when his mom kicks him out of the house for a night. He has his first sexual experience. Chiron is still friends with Kevin, but he may be his only friend, and Kevin is involved in an incident that leads to Chiron having to leave Miami.
The last act follows Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) about a decade later in his adult life. He’s hardened at this point, and buff, far from the skinny kid we saw in the second act. He lives in Atlanta now, but gets a call from Kevin looking to catch up. Much of this act is a conversation between the two of them in a diner back in Miami.
It’s hard to convey in writing what Moonlight does to you while you’re watching it. I’m hardly qualified to discuss the movie’s sociological implications, but I can point out that movies like this, that focus on the lives of black people without reducing them to their race, are few and far between. I live in a white, privileged world, so much of this movie is very foreign to me.
But writer-director Barry Jenkins’s camera takes its time with these characters, forcing you to see them clearly. There are a lot of close-ups, removing any barriers between you and them. We see several scenes from directly behind a character, sliding us into their perspective. This is a slow movie, but any faster and you wouldn’t know these people, you wouldn’t see them.
Moonlight is something more than the movie you expect. We’ve seen most of these characters in other movies, but in Moonlight they are no longer tropes or stereotypes. Nor are they the opposite of their tropes, meant to surprise you with how progressively they’ve been written. Mahershala Ali doesn’t play Juan as a “drug dealer- but with a heart of gold!” He’s a person with complicated feelings about what he does, trapped in a world both of his making and not of his making. Chiron’s three actors don’t play him as “a young black man- but gay!” Chiron’s sexuality matters as he struggles to figure out who he is, but the movie is deft at making the point that his identity is bigger than that.
This is a must-see movie because it will be up for Oscars, yes, but I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks these actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.
(h/t One Perfect Shot for the gif)