NYFF: Moonlight (Main Slate Film)

Reviewed By Lauren Humphries-Brooks (Part of coverage of the New York International Film Festival)

One of the most lauded films to come out of the festival circuit this year, writer/director Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is an exquisite examination of a Miami boy’s growth into manhood as he comes to understand his homosexuality. Moonlight succeeds in mostly avoiding the clichés, telling a timeless, relatable story firmly embedded in a culture informed by poverty, violence, and drug addiction without devolving into the common troupes that so often plague similar stories.

We’re first introduced to Chiron as a little boy (Alex Hibbert), hiding from bullies in a flophouse. He’s found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, destined to become his surrogate father. Hibbert’s child is the blueprint for the teenager we soon meet – small, quiet, young man unwilling to engage in the playground battles of his friends, but deeply in need of human contact. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict, a fact revealed in a surprising scene that brings Juan’s professional life into conflict with his private sense of responsibility for Chiron.

Juan becomes Chiron’s first tender contact with his masculine identity. Fatherless, the boy has known only violence from other men and boys. Juan reinforces the combination of sensitivity buried beneath culturally required “hardness.” In a pivotal scene, Juan teaches Chiron to swim, holding him gently in the water as he learns to float, to let go, and finally to paddled off on his own. Later, the man tells the boy a story about being nicknamed “Blue” by a woman in his native Cuba, after she saw the moonlight reflecting off his skin. This revelation of beauty of the black male body is a continuous theme throughout Moonlight, as the camera dwells lovingly on images of masculinity and black skin. It is also a moment of clarity for Chiron, who has to learn to embrace his own body, and his needs.

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The desire for tenderness – both sexual and non-sexual – from other men works in contrast to the violent world that Chiron must inhabit. As a child he fights with his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), grappling with games that become more complex as they age into adulthood. Chiron’s silences express his simultaneous need for physical connection to other men and his inability to voice that desire, either to himself or to others. His homosexuality is self-evident  even at a young age, but it is through the language of other men that he comes to understand it. When Chiron asks the meaning of the word “faggot,” Juan says that no one should ever call him that: “You might be gay, but you’re not a faggot.”

The distinction in language becomes ever more complicated and oppressive as Chiron grows from boy to teenager. As a teenager, Chiron’s difference becomes more pronounced – his classmates and friends continue to refer to him by the childhood nickname of “Little.” Naming is a factor in all of Chiron’s experiences – he despises being called “Little,” but later embraces the nickname “Black” as the image he chooses to present to the world. He’s verbally and physically abused for being gay, yet there is a palpable sense that his gayness is being treated only as a slur, rather than any actual acknowledgment of the reality of his homosexuality. Conflict increases, forcing him into horrific decisions in his need to assert himself – to prove that he’s “hard” – in order to stave off persecution. The results of this becomes the theme of the final act, in which the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) deals with the aftermath of his experiences.

It’s hard to do justice to the beauty of Moonlight in writing, for it’s a deeply visual film, reliant on the exaltation of black male beauty, in all its forms, as it acknowledges homophobia and masculine posturing within the culture. It is beautifully photographed, dwelling on the physicality of the actors and their place within cramped apartments and classrooms, and the wide, free beaches where Chiron finds the most peace. While slow, the pacing allows the audience to truly embed themselves in the film, to come close to the characters and the world they inhabit, in all its frightening beauty.

The eloquence of Moonlight’s cinematography is equaled only by the performances. The three actors portraying Chiron maintain a constant characterization at each stage of his life. The viewer truly believes that the boy grows up to be the man, as different as they might seem on the surface. The supporting cast further lends depth to potentially clichéd characters—of special note is Mahershala Ali, whom I want to see nominated for Best Supporting Actor. While the men are certainly the central concern, both for Chiron and the film, the two major female characters – Chiron’s mother Paula and surrogate mother Terese (Janelle Monae) – capably exceed their supportive roles to become sympathetic figures in their own right.

If Moonlight fails anywhere, it is in the occasional retreat to what I can only term genre clichés. The crack-addict mother, the sensitive boy growing up in violence and poverty, the drug dealer with a heart of gold—these are all recognizable tropes that, while valid, have also been seen  many times before. But to its credit, Moonlight does not overly rely on these tropes, and the plot steers away from the more predictable turns it might have taken.

Moonlight presents a broad conflict of masculinities and masculine identity while maintaining its sense of the personal and the profound. Slow moving, it might bore some viewers unwilling to indulge in its precisely constructed images, but should not be avoided by anyone willing to experience a beautiful film about the emotional conflict in racial and sexual identities. We should all see and understand this film, at this period in history more than ever.

Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @lhbizness)

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