A question is posed to the main character of Barry Jenkins’s wondrous, superbly acted new film, Moonlight: “Who is you, man?” The beauty of Jenkins’s second feature, which follows his San Francisco–set black-boho romance Medicine for Melancholy (2008), radiates from the way that query is explored and answered: with specifics and expansiveness, not with foregone conclusions. It is asked by a black man of another black man — those to whom so much poisonous meaning and deranged mythology have long been ascribed, those too often not deemed worthy to be given a chance to respond to this most fundamental of inquiries.
Divided into three chapters, Moonlight tracks its protagonist, Chiron, in as many stages, each titled with his name or nickname: at ages nine (“Little,” played by Alex Hibbert), 16 (“Chiron,” Ashton Sanders) and approximately 26 (“Black,” Trevante Rhodes). The film takes place primarily in Liberty City, a housing project in Miami where Jenkins grew up, as did the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose unproduced drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue the filmmaker adapted for the screen. Like Jenkins and McCraney were, Chiron is being raised by a drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris).
Crucially, in the movie’s first section, Little is also being cared for and guided by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug kingpin who provides the crack that is ravaging Paula; Juan’s house — which the trafficker shares with his even more doting girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, fantastic in her big-screen debut) — is where the boy runs to when life with Mama proves too much. This is one of the many painful contradictions in the film, which are highlighted without being ceaselessly underscored: An empty dope hole, in fact, will serve as a sanctuary for Little, first seen rushing past Juan as the child tries to outrun three tormentors, followed by cinematographer James Laxton’s sinuous, pirouetting camera. The boy finds refuge in the boarded-up house and holds an empty crack vial to the light, a stretch of silence that Hibbert, among the most watchful young performers I’ve ever seen, makes spellbinding.
Extricated from the drug den by Juan, Little, in this and in most of his interactions with his surrogate father, will remain wordless. He is too consumed with absorbing all of Juan’s communication, whether verbal or non-. Juan teaches the boy to swim, cradling him, pietà-like, in the ocean. His counsel to his charge is just as loving: “At some point you gotta decide who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
But others, like those kids chasing him, have already made up their minds about who and what Little is: “soft,” “a faggot.” (McCraney is gay; Jenkins is not.) The taunting and abuse become worse in Moonlight’s middle section, all while teenage Chiron, whose beanpole build only exacerbates his vulnerability, struggles to make sense of his own desire. He is able to express it near the same patch of beach where he had that earlier swimming lesson. The encounter is initiated by a friend named Kevin (played as a teenager by Jharrel Jerome), a boastful, nominally straight Lothario who shares — and is turned on by — his quiet pal’s inchoate yearning “to do a lot of things that don’t make sense.” Moonlight was shot in widescreen, to fully capture both Miami’s languorous, sun-stroked beauty and that of extremely intimate moments like this one between Kevin and Chiron, their surfeit of feeling expanding out to the farthest reaches of the screen.
A betrayal in the second section leads to more than one reconciliation in the third and to an even swoonier kind of romance. In his mid-20s and now living in Atlanta, Black, the sobriquet bestowed on Chiron by Kevin in high school, has entered his one-time mentor’s profession and has built up a carapace of muscle. A phone call from Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland), the first time Black has heard from him in a decade, prompts a drive back to Florida and a reunion that — filled with so much pain, regret, omission, hurt, tenderness and love — is almost too much to bear.
Here, again, the film calls attention subtly yet sharply, in a few lines of dialogue, to appalling realities of warehoused black male bodies, of the prison-industrial complex. “I got sent up for some stupid shit,” Kevin, grinning, tells his old friend as they’re catching up in the diner where he now does double-duty as a waiter and cook. “Same stupid shit they always put us away for.”
After the restaurant clears out, Kevin plays a song on the jukebox for Black — I won’t name the title for fear of ruining the surprise; the track, like all the others heard in Moonlight, beautifully distills a mood. The lyrics serve as an apology and maybe even a seduction. Both times that I’ve watched Moonlight, I’ve been reminded of a work that precedes it by almost 30 years and that was made in an entirely different idiom: Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989), a personal video essay full of spoken-word poetry and monologues about desire, shame and racism that declares “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.” In Jenkins’ film, that love — whether carnal, paternal or something else — has many permutations. It also need not extend to another person. “I’m me, man,” Black replies when Kevin asks him that key question mentioned above, a declaration of ever-endangered pride and self-worth.