4.5 stars. Rated R, for drug use, frequent profanity, sexuality and brief violence
By Derrick Bang
Some rare, special films — such as this one — are made with a degree of raw intimacy that’s both compelling and painful.
Director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is profoundly difficult to watch at times, its depiction of contemporary inner city black life achingly sad, with its focus on one young man’s struggle to surmount his upbringing, his environment and the crushing realization that the world expects him to accomplish absolutely nothing. Can it be true, in the modern United States, that one is doomed from birth?
And yet Jenkins’ intriguing storytelling method — co-scripted with Tarell Alvin McCraney — offers glimpses of, if not hope, at least peace and acceptance. Although coming-of-age sagas are a familiar cinema staple, this one takes an intriguing approach; it was conceived as a drama school project in a class run by McCraney, a playwright and 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient.
Jenkins’ big-screen adaptation is divided into three distinct chapters, reflecting seminal moments in the young protagonist’s life, and with different actors — who resemble each other to an uncanny degree — playing the character as he ages. The film’s atmosphere of authenticity is no accident; both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in the South Florida Liberty City housing project where much of this story unfolds.
The picture isn’t pretty, the experience on par with 2009’s Precious, and graced with similarly powerful performances.
There’s another, equally revealing comparison. 1996’s Sling Blade remains famous as the film that turned its star, director and writer — Billy Bob Thornton — into a household name. That film got much of its power from the narrative’s multiple punches. After its protagonist’s first soliloquy, delivered early on, we thought, Damn, Billy Bob peaked too quickly; there’s no way anything else will come close to that scene’s dramatic intensity. And yet, later, Thornton did top it. And we marveled.
Jenkins achieves the same intensity here.
We meet Chiron at age 9, played by Alex Hibbert: a cowed, withdrawn child bullied by schoolmates because of his small size. This earns him the pejorative nickname of “Little,” and classroom torment isn’t even his major problem; at home, he’s alternately coddled and demeaned by his mother, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a crack addict whose parental instincts flicker erratically, at best.
Little is “rescued” one day, in a sense, by Juan (Mahershala Ali), an essentially compassionate man who — unfortunately — happens to be the neighborhood drug dealer. But the boy doesn’t know this, and their developing relationship is the first demonstration — with several more to come — of Jenkins’ skill at building a sensitive character dynamic under unlikely circumstances.
Except that it really isn’t that unlikely. Ali, a remarkably skilled and expressive actor currently playing the villain on TV’s Luke Cage, gives this man a soft, sympathetic side: Clearly, Juan recognizes the value of having a father figure that he never personally experienced. And so the man and boy bond, Little gradually emerging from his self-protective shell.
The first magic moment comes when Juan takes Little to the beach. Young Hibbert plays this scene with beguiling fascination; we suddenly realize that he’s never before experienced the ocean. The mere sensation of so much water prompts a reaction that is heartbreaking, in its silent joy.
Back at school, a small reprieve: Little finds a friend in Kevin (Jaden Piner), a more gregarious boy with a ready smile. He assigns Little a new, sturdier nickname: Black. They rough-house, Kevin encouraging Little to display a tougher outward physicality, but their sparring has an undercurrent. Jenkins definitely shades the scene provocatively, and we hold our breath.
But whatever these breakthroughs with Juan and Kevin, such small victories cannot last. All too soon, an emotional crisis, at which point the screen fades to black; the story resumes in high school, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) now going by his given name. He’s even more of a social outcast, his lanky frame and tight jeans prompting gender-based catcalls, most frequently coming from the thuggish Terrel (Patrick Decile).
But Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome) remains in the picture: still friendly, still kind, still something of a bridge between Chiron and the rest of the clique-ish high school community.
Which is a good thing, because Chiron’s home life has become even more unstable, Teresa rarely able to rise above the shrieking, volatile self that has been molded by drug abuse. Chiron’s scenes with her are frightening, her irrationality flat-out scary.
At such moments, Chiron’s sanctuary — his place of safety — is the beach, where he stares quietly at the endless ocean that enchanted him so much, not so many years earlier.
Not that it matters. As was the case with the first chapter, this one also ends in betrayal. And so the screen darkens again, as Jenkins segues to the final chapter.
Chiron, now a twentysomething man who proudly goes by Black (played now by Trevante Rhodes), has relocated to Atlanta. He has, as if by dismal predestination, become a drug dealer just like Juan. He’s also hardened: bigger, stronger, more dominant. A man who took pains to become an imposing figure who won’t ever be messed with.
Black’s interactions with a lower-echelon street colleague echo the similar dynamic we witnessed, as the film opened, between Juan and one of his subordinates. And we grieve, over the painful inevitability.
But despite this aura of invincibility, Rhodes’ troubled eyes betray the image; Black may be in control of his destiny, but he’s far from happy. Something is missing.
Part of the discontent certainly arises from unresolved issues with Teresa, now in a detox center. In a film laden with gut-wrenchingly persuasive scenes, the final encounter between Black and his mother may be the most memorable. (Hard to tell: The earlier sequence, when Juan teaches Little how to swim, is a tough contender.) Monáe has been striking throughout, but her work here is sublime, because it achieves the impossible: It makes us — finally — feel sorry for this woman., despite her many, many earlier transgressions.
At about the same time, Black receives a late-night phone call from Kevin (André Holland), now a chef at a modest Miami café. This contact is unexpected for several reasons — of which we’re well aware — and we recognize the confusion in Rhodes’ expression. And we wonder, with equal parts concern and caution, what Black will do about it.
Although dramatized fiction, Jenkins’ film frequently manifests the familiarity of documentary: both because of the persuasive reality of these characters, and the compelling performances by the actors playing them; and the authenticity of the location setting. Jenkins and production designer Hannah Beachler shot much of the film in Liberty Square, the public “housing scheme” frequented cited as one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
The atmosphere of menace is palpable; we can’t help wondering how anybody survives such an upbringing.
Jenkins’ use of music is minimal, but similarly illuminating; soundtrack composer Nicholas Britell often employs quiet solo piano to shade key scenes, further enhancing the pathos that already is almost unbearable. As with every other aspect of this film — editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders also deserve plaudits — Jenkins knows precisely how to achieve a given visceral response. He plays us like a master conductor.
Moonlight isn’t an easy film, and it’ll struggle to be noticed. But it’s destined, I’m sure, to become as key a cinematic depiction of the contemporary black experience, as John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood was, back in 1991.