Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight,’ based on the play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a beautiful story of self-discovery, identity, and human connection, but also a heartbreaking study of masculinity, bullying, and repressed sexuality. A superb narrative structure splits the film into three parts, following Chiron, a young black boy living in Miami, as he goes from childhood (Alex Hibbert), to his teenage years (Ashton Sanders), to adulthood (Trevante Rhodes). He grows up with a single mother (Naomie Harris) who sinks into drug addiction and there seems to be a severe lack of love in his life. He has few friends and is an easy target for the bullies at school. Eventually this sweet, slightly gawky, shy boy is broken, forced into anger and rage, and grows up to become quite the opposite, the epitome of hyper masculinity and toughness; a drug dealer who barks intimidatingly at his dealers, who has bulked up with layers of muscles and wears gold teeth grills. He is almost unrecognisable from his younger self. Although in many ways he found a route away from his bullies, he has also succumbed to them by morphing into what they thought a man should be rather than finding his own path. He has crafted an image of himself rather than discovering his true self and identity. As a result, he has also repressed his sexuality, connection with others, and his relationship with himself, which the film explores in detail in its final act.
As a child, Chiron, or ‘Little’ as he is known as, connects with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who finds him after being chased by bullies one day. He shows him the kindness and guidance that Chiron so desperately needs. Juan is a brilliantly complex character, both a kindly, almost father-like figure to Chiron, but also the drug dealer who fuels his mother’s addiction. The moral complexity and grey areas presented here are fascinating; he is angered by her drug taking and neglect of her son, yet he is the one supplying her. In a particularly poignant scene at Juan’s house, Chiron asks him if he sells drugs to his mother, which he has to admit to. As Chiron leaves, Juan is visibly upset, hanging his head ashamedly. Jenkins excellently avoids a stereotypical portrayal of a drug dealer, instead showing him to be morally conflicted and focusing on his loving relationship with Teresa (Janelle Monae) and his kind, generous nature as he teaches Chiron to swim, provides him with meals and a place to sleep, and making sure he gets home safely.
Chiron’s bullies comment on his clothes, call him soft, and hurl homophobic slurs at him, which no doubt leads him to repress his mostly undiscovered sexuality and true identity. Other than a night time encounter on the beach with the only friend he ever seems to have, Kevin, he has never got close to anyone or had any other sexual experiences. He’s kept his homosexuality a secret, maybe even from himself, and when Kevin, the only person he has ever experienced intimacy with, spontaneously calls up Chiron as adults, it seems it’s time for him to finally address his sexuality, as well as his identity as a whole. While Chiron, going by the name of ‘Black’ as an adult – also a nickname Kevin gave him as teenagers – has transformed on the surface, he is still that quiet man who struggles to get his words out, especially upon meeting Kevin again.
As a young boy, Juan told Chiron that it was up to him who he wants to be, that he has got to define that for himself and to not let anyone else tell him who that is. It’s heartbreaking, then, to see him go on to be broken by his bullies, to erupt into rage and become fuelled by anger, forcing himself to ‘toughen up’ and be more like them. This is a study of what bullying, intolerance and the expectations of masculinity can do to people, bullying can force them to completely change themselves to fit in, intolerance can force them to repress their true selves, and the demanding expectations of masculinity can force men to become hard, brittle, furious, and closed off. The effects these harsh expectations on men make especially poignant drama, and the film has a universal feel to it. ‘Moonlight’ is an incredibly powerful film that is full of nuance and, shot absolutely beautifully, is a complete work of art visually, thematically and narratively.
Watch the trailer below:
‘Moonlight’ is out in cinemas across the UK.