“Who is you, man?” might be the last question that Chiron, the protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ new film Moonlight, wants to hear. For a gay black man raised in the Miami projects, he’s spent years crafting the mask that enables his survival, tenuous as it may be.
Moonlight, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is a necessary invigoration of queer and black cinema—it is a film that many believed could never exist, and cinema is better for it.
The story is built like a tree. Each part in the three-act structure becomes a new ring in the trunk, thickening the layers of Chiron’s armor with each time jump. In the first act, “Little,” we meet Chiron as a nine-year-old, played with precocity and wisdom by Alex Hibbert. Chiron’s world is first introduced through Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who discovers Chiron in a boarded-up drug den after the boy is chased by schoolyard bullies. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) offer Chiron a home-cooked meal and some familial love, an escape from the growing volatility of his crack-addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and the homophobia he encounters from his peers.
In the second act, Chiron is a sullen, skinny teenager, played with devastating vulnerability by Ashton Sanders. Spiky-shouldered and cagey, with one of the most soulful pair of eyes ever committed to the screen, Chiron’s precarity wobbles on the edge in scene after scene of emotional brutality. Chiron is a virtually silent character who has internalized pain at an almost cellular level, but all three actors’ evocative eyes makes the character’s despair palpable, immersing you in his lonely headspace. Disembodied voices and shaky-cam helps to unmoor the audience whenever Chiron is feeling lost or anxious, building on his isolation from the rest of the world.
A dreamy moment of intimacy with his childhood friend Kevin temporarily relieves his pain, before a violent betrayal finally pushes Chiron’s deeply-buried rage over the edge. This act builds suspense through the way Sanders carries his body—Chiron strides through the school hallways with newfound resolve and purpose, wavering ever-so-slightly before emboldening himself once more. Because we have always seen Chiron so wary and timid, we recognize immediately that this posturing can’t mean anything good, resulting in an explosive act of vengeance.
Moonlight is a departure from the hyper-naturalistic aesthetic that dominates most black cinema. James Laxton’s rapturous, elliptical cinematography feels necessary and radical. While some of Jenkin’s influences are apparent—Charles Burnett, Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-Wai, and Jane Campion come to mind—many of the visuals in this movie are native to Moonlight alone. There is a kind of righteous importance in the images of Chiron’s hand riding the wind as it hangs out of a car window, or a scene of his surrogate father-figure cradling him in the sea, or a serendipitous meeting between him and his crush on a moonlit beach. These magical moments battle against the savagery of schoolyard bullies and his mother’s crack addiction, all set against the backdrop of Nicholas Brittel’s lush, haunting score. The music surges with urgency then recedes again, much like Chiron himself.
In the final act, “Black,” adult Chiron (Trevonte Rhodes) looks almost identical to the now-deceased Juan, inheriting the role of a spiritual son. He has mountains of muscle and wears a do-rag and diamond earrings—Chiron even has the same crown on his car’s dashboard as Juan. He’s drug dealing in Atlanta so that he can stay close to his mother, who’s recovering in a rehabilitation center nearby. A surprise call from former flame Kevin (Andre Holland) disarms him, and Chiron returns home to Miami to test the romantic waters.
They reunite in the diner where Kevin works. It’s late—most of Kevin’s customers have left for the night, leaving an empty stage for Kevin to charm Chiron with his chef’s special and a few bottles of wine, teasing him with the easy banter and tenderness of a long-time lover.
Kevin dubiously takes in Chiron’s new gold fronts, his dumbbell-sculpted muscles, his taciturn reluctance to say anything true, and asks, without pretense, “Who is you, man?”
Chiron leans against the wall of Kevin’s kitchen, where he’s been invited to stay for the night. His guards are up. “I’m me” is Chiron’s flimsy answer. The last time they locked eyes like this, a teenage Chiron was being ushered into a cop car, his face still freshly bruised from schoolyard bullies drunk on homophobic bloodlust, while a guilt-ridden Kevin looked on. Ten years later, Chiron’s self-denial is a zero-sum game—the harder he works to avoid answering who he is, the more exposed his longing becomes.
Chiron’s vulnerability ebbs and flows as intensely as the ocean waves he’s so drawn to — in one moment he looks ready to lay his identity bare; in the next he’s a fortress of impenetrability. It’s breathtaking to watch Chiron’s selfhood finally shudder to the surface, denuded of its armor.
When James Baldwin said “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” this is the kind of love he meant. Moonlight will leave you feeling similarly unmasked, as raw as an exposed nerve, and utterly bewitched. Rarely is a film so spellbinding—in Moonlight’s case, its magic cannot be overstated.