Get ready to hear a lot about a new film called Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), it is a beautifully directed and brilliantly acted portrait of a boy struggling to find his identity in a milieu of poverty, violence, and drugs. The reviews have been rapturous: a “masterpiece”; “even better than you’ve heard”; a “gem,” and “one of the best films of the year.”
Moonlight deserves all of this praise. Critics have highlighted homosexuality, and how it’s treated in the black community, as the main theme of the film. This is part of Moonlight, but the film more broadly addresses the spiritual and psychological crisis that occurs when boys are not initiated into manhood by responsible and caring older men. To my viewing this is the most obvious and searing theme of Moonlight, and the engine driving its plot; the other themes of bullying, drugs, and same sex attraction all flow from this main thesis. Spoiler alert: I’m going to be giving away key plot points and talking about the final shots of the film, so stop reading if you plan on seeing it.
Based on a 2006 play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight follows Chiron, a poor black boy growing up in Miami, as he progresses from childhood to manhood. The film is divided into three parts representing his childhood, his adolescence, and early adulthood.
In the first part, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), nicknamed Little, is a nine-year-old who lives with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack-addicted medical nurse. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, becomes a father figure to Chiron while at the same time selling drugs to Chiron’s mom. Chiron’s only close friend is a schoolmate, Kevin (Jaden Piner).
Drug dealer Juan is the closest thing to a father that Chiron has. In one of the best sequences in the film, Juan takes Chiron to the Atlantic Ocean to teach him how to swim. Director Jenkins always keeps the camera close to his characters, and in the swimming scene you can feel the surf threatening to bring Chiron under even as Juan offers steady guidance and even love. “I got you,” he tells Chiron, cradling the boy in his arms. It’s at this time that Juan recalls a memory of an old woman seeing him on the beach at night and saying, “In the moonlight, black boys look blue! You’re blue!” Chiron begins spending nights at the home of Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). This abruptly stops when Chiron understands that Juan is selling drugs to his mother—that he is, in fact, killing her. Chiron also suspects he might be gay, but is unsure, asking Juan what “gay” means.
While thematically Moonlight is similar to other ghetto dramas like Boyz N the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), Jenkins has aimed for, and achieved, something aesthetically richer and higher. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have given interviews discussing wanting to move away from a documentary, or realist look in Moonlight, to a more dreamlike feel. (Laxton owes a great deal to a filmmaker often mentioned in this space, Terence Malick.) The acting is the best I’ve seen in any film this year, with every player giving a completely convincing performance. Also in need of mention is an unheralded star of this film, its gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell. Brittle’s minimalist piano style is beautifully melancholy without giving broad emotional cues. It’s refreshing to see a film about black Americans from struggling families without a loud, steady stream of rap lyrics steering the audience towards anger.
The second and third acts of Moonlight follow Chiron (played as a student by Ashton Sanders and then as an adult by Trevante Rhodes) as he is bullied in high school and then finally becomes a drug dealer himself. Chiron has been shy his entire life, but the three actors who play him in Moonlight convey the roiling rage, the ocean-deep depression, that is at the heart of his pain. Chiron is taciturn because he is desperate for male love and guidance, but almost everywhere he turns, there is little but chaos and abuse. His early mentor, the drug dealer, disappears after the first act (a bit of dialogue refers to his funeral), and the boys in high school are relentless bullies. Chiron only experiences love during a homosexual encounter on the beach with Kevin when they are both in high school. The brief encounter reads less as joyful intimacy and more as an attempt by a young man surrounded by pain and terror to connect with a man, any man, who will show him care.
In Moonlight’s final act, we see that Chiron has become a muscle-bound drug dealer hardened after time spent in prison. He pays a visit to his old friend Kevin (the adult version played by André Holland), now a cook at a Miami diner. Kevin is disappointed that Chiron has chosen the life of a dealer but still has affection for his friend. The two go back to Kevin’s dingy apartment and talk about old times.
It is here that Chiron finally reveals his deep pain: he has never experienced any kind of intimacy since that night on the beach with Kevin. “No one has ever touched me,” Chiron says, a line with spiritual and psychological meaning, not just physical. Chiron is hungry not just for sex but for the thing he has craved since Juan taught him to swim: strong guidance and love from a male friend and mentor. It’s why the film ends with such powerful imagery, a shot of Kevin strongly but gently holding on to Chiron, followed by a flashback shot of Chiron as a small boy at night on the beach. “Black boys turn blue in the moonlight.”
According to psychologist James Hollis, rites that provide for the initiation of young men into the world of adulthood are essential to male health. In his book Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men (1994), Hollis examines how rites of initiation for adolescent boys were once a common and crucial part of tribal and community life. Strong and moral adult make figures provided rituals to signal to a young man that he was becoming an adult, and that he was part of a larger world. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described it, in a quote used by Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow:
That gives peace, when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal and you can dish is it. A career, producing of children, all are maya [illusions] compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful.
For young men and boys, that initiation into the cosmic drama can only be done by other men. Otherwise boys become, as does Chiron, bitter and lost, and also driven to present themselves as tough and menacing while weeping inside.
As James Hollis puts it, “the modern man,” with “no wise elders to rescue and instruct him,” and “no positive sense of what such manhood might feel like,” suffers wounds that “are not transformative; they do not bring deepened consciousness; they do not lead him to a richer life. They senselessly, repeatedly, stun him into a numbing of the soul before the body has had the good sense to die.”