In its particulars, the new film Moonlight comes perilously close to the sort of lurid fetishization of misery with the financially-downtrodden portions of the broader African-American community that makes films such as Precious into tedious slogs that simultaneously congratulate and exploit liberal empathy while compounding stereotypes. Within this story of a young black male who struggles with matter of identity as he grows into manhood there is a drug dealer with a heart of gold (Mahershala Ali), an addicted mother (Naomie Harris), a supposed intimate friend who delivers the ultimate betrayal (played by different actors at different ages, but by Jharrel Jerome at the devastating moment), and a depiction of devastated neighborhoods that has mirror-image predecessors stretching back at least to the urban panic films of the nineteen-seventies. And yet Moonlight isn’t a problematic repetition of cliches. It’s quite the opposite, largely because every one of those descriptions of different elements in the film is as reductive as it is accurate.
The film follows its lead character through three distinct passages of his life: as a boy nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), a high school student insisting classmates refer to him by his birth name of Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and a man who’s adopted the intimidating moniker Black (Trevante Rhodes). He struggles with finding his place, as any peron does. But his journey is compounded by the dual and complexly intertwined challenges of otherness that invite callous, unthinking oppression. He is a black male, and he is gay.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight traces the lead character’s life with intimacy and compassion. The real risk that the film will get swamped by overly familiar drama is dodged by the novelistic thoroughness Jenkins brings to the storytelling. The three segments of the film aren’t fragmentary or episodic. Instead, the thirds artfully enhance each other, providing a compelling sense of full lives, even if they’re lived on the precipice of collapse. Harris’s turn as the mother provides the sharpest example of this quality to the film. Across the first two segments, her character is one that’s been seen repeatedly across superficially similar films. Harris plays it with conviction, but without displaying any notable levels of transformative invention. In the closing portion of Moonlight, though, she provides of glimpse of someone shaded by what has come before, but moving forward in a different way. It deepens the whole performance, added meaning and purpose to the totality of her work.
There are fine performances throughout Moonlight, as Jenkins drives his actors to add nuance. Ali gives layer of soulfulness to his benevolent drug lord, and Janelle Monáe makes an impressive onscreen acting debut as equally kind and nurturing romantic partner. All three actors who take turns in the lead role are strong, but special praise is merited for Rhodes, who lets a layer of bravado melt away ever so gradually to reveal the enduring lost boy beneath. In general, there’s a intense precision to the physicality of the performances, and the attentiveness of the images formulated by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton further highlights the casual poetry and sensuality of small gestures.
Moonlight unfolds with a remarkable purity of purpose. It strives for truthfulness and demands understanding from the audience, suggesting shared preconceptions are a significant part of the hardships that confront people like Chiron. Within that uncompromising honesty lies the film’s piercing beauty.