2016 was an important year for African-American representation and voices in popular culture. Works such as Beyonce’s album Lemonade and Ava Duverney’s documentary 13th were stand-outs in particular, directly addressing the politics of black lives and issues such as police brutality and discrimination. Moonlight, however, manages to add a further shade of subtlety to this painting of the African-American experience with its passing glances, tender moments and oceans of words left unsaid. By presenting the African-American identity in a strikingly intimate and deeply felt manner it offers a challenge to many of the stereotypes surrounding black identity on screen.
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, the film Moonlight is only writer-director Berry Jenkin’s second feature-length work since his 2008 debut, Medicine for Melancholy. Told in three chapters, Moonlight presents the coming-of-age of Chiron, an alienated and dispirited child in the suburbs of Miami. The storyline tracks Chiron’s journey from a misfit primary schooler seeking reprieve from the home shared with his drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris), to a high-schooler persecuted for his sexuality and, finally, into an emotionally fragmented adulthood. Through following the life of one man so closely Moonlight is able to explore this experience of being black in America with startling insight and surprising tenderness.
It is to the credit of the astonishing cast of the film that, not only is Chiron’s story absolutely heart-wrenching, but every character is beautifully realized and complex. Playing Chiron at the three stages of his life are Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevant Rhodes, each of them capturing the spirit and essence of Chiron so well that their physical resemblance is rendered almost irrelevant. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae both deliver career-best performances as the local drug dealer and his partner who care for young Chiron in the first chapter of the film, giving great heart and strength as Chiron’s adopted guardians. Bathed in moody hues and evocative imagery, the cinematography by James Lixton is gorgeous, as is the hip-hop and classical-infused score by Nicholas Brittel. Orchestrating it all is Jenkins, who feels like a seasoned pro at filmmaking despite his relatively limited experience. Directed with such care, commitment and attention to detail, Moonlight is simultaneously personal and universal.
Moonlight is also an essential piece of cinematic art for the queer community, capturing an intersection of racial and sexual identities that is often missing from our screens. Jenkins is both honest and empathetic in his portrayal of the struggles many queer kids still face in their day-to-day lives. Watching Chiron being left out of the circle of boys on the playground, or being bullied by his classmates, or share his first kiss with a boy, one can only imagine the powerful impact seeing this film could have on another young person coming to terms with their sexuality.
Moonlight speaks volumes not just about the African-American experience or the gay experience, but of the universality in these experiences. This film serves as a powerful reminder about the importance of representation in art and popular culture. Few movies are able to pull you into the lives of people unlike yourself – to allow you to see the world through their eyes and empathise with their experience – in the way that Moonlight does. Even further, none have managed to do so with such depth, authenticity and effortlessness.