In an indelible scene near the opening of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) picks up a broken piece of glass on the floor of a derelict building where he is hiding from a group of bullying boys. As he holds the blood-stained fragment between his fingers, with looming consequences, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local crack-dealer, who has seen then followed the predatory chase, bursts into the room through a boarded-up window.
Like sunshine upon the dark, lonely corner in which the child has been crouching, Juan coaxes him out with good humour and seeming kindness. Only, we don’t see the drug-boss try to pimp the vulnerable figure, whose wary eyes explain why he does not utter a word; instead, with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), through food and gentle-naturedness, Juan cajoles the boy to finally say his name and take him home.
The way tenderness is shone into a reality of violence and isolation says much about Moonlight, Jenkins’ second feature, based on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical account by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Segregated into three sections — Little, Chiron, Black — to reflect the nicknames given to the central character, the story follows a young African-American grappling with his identity and his sexuality while growing up in Miami, Florida.
And the protagonist is powerfully embodied by Hibbert, by Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes for each of the respective stage of his life: an adolescent, then a teenager, and an adult in his early 30s.
Moonlight sustains an exquisite balance between the horror and humanity existing in society’s underbelly. The actors wear their roles in superb performances devoid of exaggeration and stereotyping. Like no other film on black, gay America I can recall, it conveys with empathy the anguish suffered because of one’s nature, and the intense fragility of myriad bonds with nuance and discretion.
After their first encounter, Juan, despite hostility from Chiron’s single mother (Naomi Harris) — ironically hooked on cocaine he supplies — keeps up the relationship with the child. Learning to float and to swim in the ocean turns out to be, in effect, a lesson for Chiron from his mentor not only on how to survive in the unpredictable world, but also, more interestingly, to let go and be whom he is amid buffeting waves.
Tormented in school for being ‘soft’, and at home by a parent who resents his presence for getting in the way of her life, Chiron, now 16, in not wanting to bring trouble on the ever-generous Teresa (Juan, unseen, presumed dead) retreats deeper into his misery.
In one of the movie’s sexual sequences, remarkable in its subtlety and taste, filled with longing and reticence and apologies, the lanky introvert discovers his first physical awakening on the beach one night with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a childhood friend, who by calling him Black persuades Chiron to accept himself as he is, in a single frame that feels at once liberating and poignant. The sense of deep understanding and sharing is written in the air between their fingers lingering before they part.
Meeting up again after many years, having taken radically different paths, Kevin (played eventually by Andre Holland) is astounded at the gold-plated teeth and rippling muscles and smell of unclean money on the boy he thought he knew well, and Chiron, too, is surprised (if disappointed) at the person he’s all this time tucked away in a special place in his heart.
Yet behind all the awkwardness and ambivalence and artificial fronts, the feelings and magic prove to be very much alive.
“In moonlight black boys look blue,” says a young Kevin (Jaden Piner) early on in this Oscar winner that perceives the raw emotions brought out among blacks (as they do whites and browns and caramels) when no one is watching — although not before sunshine comes and warms up that dark, derelict corner.