Directed by Barry Jenkins
We see in Moonlight, the Oscar winning film from Barry Jenkins, the shaping of identity occurring against one’s will. The central protagonist, Chiron, undergoes something of an anti-coming of age: as a gay boy growing up in a homophobic environment, he’s forced to reject his true self in order to survive. These circumstances are exacerbated by race and socio-economic status – Chiron’s an African-American kid living in a poor, crime-filled Miami neighbourhood in the 1980s – but it’d be reductive to suggest that it’s only the sum of these parts. Moonlight is very much about the black, gay experience but its political undertow feels almost muted by the way Jenkins seeks to normalise these lives on screen.
The film is divided into three vignettes, each charting specific moments in Chiron’s youth. Over ten years separate the second and third incarnations of Chiron (from teenager to 20-something) and the physical changes he undergoes take something of a leap in logic. He’s built a wall of muscle around the lanky, hunched, scared teenage body that seems to be folding back into itself in the second act. The eyes, however, haven’t changed. The same delicate look we see during his adolescence still flickers with pain in his muscle-bound adulthood. Moonlight is a film that puts visual language before exposition, and this dramatic transformation of Chiron paints vividly the years of torment he’s tried to escape. The scars cut unimaginably deep, and Jenkins is bold enough to forgo realism for something more poetic to make this point clear.
All three actors who inhabit Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Travante Rhodes respectively) have very little physical similarities but there’s something almost instinctive about the way their eyes react to the world around them. There’s so many people like Chiron who’ve never seen their life reflected on screen and Moonlight only enhances the truth of such lives through its study of Chiron’s eyes. He’s bullied relentlessly as a child (he asks an adult “what’s a faggot?” in one particularly painful scene) and is also neglected by his drug-addicted mother. He finds something of a father figure in a man named Juan but the cruel irony of this relationship is that he’s the dealer who’s selling his mum drugs. Moonlight avoids feeling overly miserable though due to its tangible sense of humanity. Jenkins noted in an interview that he’d never seen a black man cook for another black man on screen before. So much of Moonlight’s emotion is wrapped up in these kinds of radically simple gestures.
It also finds emotion through the ephemeral. Water is one of the film’s recurring images, and it takes on baptismal significance in the first act when Chiron is cradled in the ocean as he learns how to swim. This is returned to later on when he submerges his head in a sink full of ice and water. “I cry so much I could turn to tears”, he confesses at one point. There’s a fluidity to Chiron’s identity and the film itself which feels akin to the power of water to cleanse and transform us.
As a socio-political document, Moonlight becomes increasingly valuable in a post-Obama America (hard to imagine art, let alone art from minority voices, will find much encouragement during Trump’s administration). But as a work of empathy, as an example of what POV cinema can be, it’s as essential as anything past or present. The more people who see it, embrace it and share it, the more likely Chiron’s story will find the people who need it most.
Words by Sebastian Moore