Black lives matter in Moonlight, filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ eloquent coming-of-age drama that explores issues of race, culture, and love in unexpected ways. Adapted by Jenkins from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the story zeroes in on three key moments in the life of its protagonist as he searches for his place in the world.
Beautifully acted, shot with visual intensity, and featuring a haunting soundtrack by Nicholas Britell, the movie begins in the recent past, in the suburbs of Miami. A minor neighborhood drug kingpin, Juan (the charismatic Mahershala Ali), originally from Cuba, is making his rounds one day in his souped-up vintage Impala when he sees a pack of kids chasing a boy. Tracking down the scared, silent boy to a boarded-up apartment house, Juan persuades him to come home with him. Over dinner with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the boy reveals that his name is Chiron, but everybody calls him “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert).
Juan takes the boy home to his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a wary single mom addicted to crack. But Little, neglected by his mom and leery of the strange men who visit her, starts spending more time with Juan and Teresa. Juan becomes the boy’s mentor and surrogate father; he teaches him to swim in the ocean, and offers thoughtful advice about finding his own identity, no matter what bullies, or his mother, say about him. “You gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be,” he tells Little.
In the movie’s middle section, we meet Chiron again as a 16-year-old high school student (now played by Ashton Sanders)—still a loner, and baited by another gang of boys, led by trash-talking Terrel (Patrick Decile). Teresa is still in his life, offering a sympathetic ear, a meal, and a place to stay whenever he needs it. But Paula is in worse shape than ever; at times, Chiron would rather ride around on streetcars all night than go home to her.
The one friend he’s retained since grade school, easygoing Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has learned to play Terrel’s game, and avoid confrontations. But when Terrel instigates a situation that involves the two friends, Chiron is driven to stand up for himself and take action.
About 10 years later, in the movie’s final act, we catch up with Chiron (played as a hard-edged adult by Trevante Rhodes), whose life has taken a turn that’s both unexpected, and, sadly, inevitable. He’s been long out of the neighborhood when one night he receives a phone call out of the blue from Kevin. Both men have spent time in Juvenile Hall, but Kevin’s experience has been positive—he learned to cook. Now he’s a chef at a Miami diner that he invites Chiron to visit if he’s ever back in town.
So Chiron hits the road on a collision course with the past. First stop: visiting his rueful mom in rehab. Next, as stoic and silent as ever, he shows up at the diner to scope out the situation and surprise Kevin (now played by warm, engaging André Holland). It’s time for a reckoning at last, as Chiron comes to terms not only with everything that happened in his past, but who he will decide to be.
There’s a lot of street slang in the movie, so viewers have to stay alert. But it doesn’t matter if you miss some of the dialogue, because the story is so much larger than the contemporary setting—it’s about choices, upbringing and the search for identity. Director Jenkins keeps the focus on the human drama, but his storytelling is also visually evocative: reeling camerawork spins a cocoon around Juan and one of his street corner dealers, showing just how completely trapped they are in this life; the harsh, saturated interiors in Paula’s bleak apartment reflect her emotional chaos.
Best of all, Moonlight gives us a new way to look at characters and situations that are only clichés on the fringes of most mainstream movies. It’s a slice of cinematic poetry with a vision all its own.
With Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, and Alex R. Hibbert. Written by Barry Jenkins. From the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Barry Jenkins. An A24 release. Rated R. 110 minutes.