To describe “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’s second feature, as a movie about growing up poor, black and gay would be accurate enough. It would also not be wrong to call it a movie about drug abuse, mass incarceration and school violence. But those classifications are also inadequate, so much as to be downright misleading. It would be truer to the mood and spirit of this breathtaking film to say that it’s about teaching a child to swim, about cooking a meal for an old friend, about the feeling of sand on skin and the sound of waves on a darkened beach, about first kisses and lingering regrets. Based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney,“Moonlight” is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.
In the first section we meet a young boy known as “Little” (played by the mesmerizing Alex Hibbert.) Struggling at school, where he is bullied for not fitting in, and navigating how to deal with his drug addict mother Paula (played expertly by Naomie Harris), Little seems to want to shrink into his name.
Adrift in his poor, crime-laden Miami neighborhood, he is somehow befriended by a kind man (played by House of Cards alum Mahershala Ali) and his perky wife (singer Janelle Monae) who offer him food, companionship and a semblance of normalcy in his harsh world. The irony is that Little’s savior is the very man who sells his addict mom her crack.
In the second part of the film, Little has become a teenager (played by Ashton Sander) now known as Chiron—his birth name. Chiron feels alienated—he’s not part of the street world around him, nor is he comfortable at home where his mom turns tricks, nor at school where his classmates continue to ostracize him. An anger begins to brew inside him as he feels a yearning he can’t fulfill, trapped within his circumstances. But he also discovers his sexuality in an intimate and realistic scene on a beach with Kevin, a boy from school, (Jharrel Jerome). His awakening is short lived. however, when his new “lover” betrays him, coerced into hitting Chiron by the school bully.
In the third and final chapter, the most poignant one of all, it’s about ten years later and Chrion is a young man in his twenties, who now goes by the name Black (played by an excellent Trevante Rhodes). Now a beefed up drug dealer with plenty of bling to match his new bravado, we soon discover that inside, Black is still the confused, damaged kid we first met.
A scene where he finally meets back up with Kevin (this time played by Andre Holland) is especially heartbreaking, as we learn that his first “love” is still his only brush with intimacy.