Barry Jenkins’ feature film Moonlight captivatingly weaves together what it means to be a young black gay man, and while this topic might sound familiar, Jenkins’ approach to telling this story is far more intricate. Through the film’s main character Chiron, you’ll experience the dangerous socio-economic waters he drowns in. To add to the narrative, viewers get to see Chiron morph into three different stages of his life, with three different actors to play him in each separate juncture as he goes from childhood to adulthood.
The film is set in 1980s Liberty City, Miami, one of South Florida’s roughest neighborhoods, and where Jenkins himself grew up. While he was writing the screenplay for the movie in Brussels, he decided to incorporate some of his own experiences into the film. Like having to boil water to take a bubble bath, and use dishwasher detergent to back the bubbles, according to The Fader.
At first, we’re introduced to Chiron as a young child who goes by “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert), whose mother is a crack addict; they live in a torn down home. Little’s demeanor is ice-cold, almost stoic with minimal dialogue. His silence makes all the noise, as his intense facial expressions voice everything he needs to say.
When he’s chased down by a local crew, and finds safe shelter inside a crack house, he’s rescued by local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Because Chiron won’t say a word, Juan takes him in and feeds him. Theresa (Janelle Monae), Juan’s partner plays a motherly role to the tormented boy. This is where Jenkins excels at exposing a larger depth to his characters. He strips away Juan’s hyper masculine appearance, and unearths a sensitive layer of humanity in him. He becomes conflicted when he realizes the same crack he sells, is the same Chiron’s mother succumbs to. It’s unfortunate, but real.
Fast forward to Chiron as a high school student, (played by Ashton Sanders) and you’ll still see the residue his traumatic upbringing scarred him with. He is still quiet. He is still bullied. And more so, he is wrestling with his sexual identity. Juan is now out of the picture, but Theresa still offers him a place to stay when he needs to get away from his belligerent mother. He begins to explore his same sex attraction with a fellow classmate, Kevin, (Jharrel Jerome) until things go sour as he gets beaten up by that same lover in school; all a product of high school peer pressure. In hindsight, Chiron begs for empathy and understanding from others. The dark cloud that looms over his life depicts the realities many face in real life.
In the film’s last transition, Chiron is finally a full-blown adult (Trevante Rhodes), and he looks nothing like he did before. Chiron went from being a victim of the trap to now reigning supreme as its main king. Still, the strength that he exudes on the surface doesn’t match his interior. That same vulnerability Little had, grown-up Chiron resurrects. In a turn of events, he goes from Atlanta down to Miami to seek his old male friend, Kevin (now Andre Holland), and professes to him he’s the only man he has ever touched.
While most could say the film leaves the viewers asking for more—as Chiron leans on Kevin’s body in the last scene of the film—it seems like he has finally found his solace.
Moonlight is set to debut in theaters Oct. 21.