By Amber Jackson
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight tells a unique and heart-breaking story about a young man struggling to claim and accept his own identity. Providing insight into the lives of black men invites audiences to view a deeply unsettling and moving account of toxic masculinity, particularly within the gay community, which is a topic that has seldom been discussed within the media.
The film details the life of Chiron, an African-American gay man, through his childhood, adolescence and adulthood whilst growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood. As a boy, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is withdrawn and lonely and ultimately an easy target for bullying and torment. His only support comes from a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who is only in the first part of the film, yet is the only father figure that Chiron ever has. Juan’s relationship to Chiron is remarkable as he tries to guide him through understanding who he is in the world. The simplicity of dialogue is enhanced through complex facial expressions and gentle gestures that convey a brutally realistic understanding of homosexuality and the attitudes towards it.
Maternity is also shown to be complicated, as a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is conflicted between his birth mother and Juan’s partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who proves herself to be a secondary maternal figure to him as he grows up. The contrast between Chiron’s turbulent home life and the safety and comfort of Teresa illustrates his displacement in the world that he knows. Teresa is somebody that he can go to whenever he needs and she will provide him with understanding, but doesn’t allow him to be withdrawn. Unlike his actual mother, who torments him, Teresa guides him and makes him feel like he can express himself, even when he is unable to.
Water is a motif that continuously resurfaces throughout the film, as though representing Chiron’s constant battle to express his emotions. The moments that he can be the most himself take place in front of water. The cinematography isn’t overdone and instead paints a harsh picture of Chiron’s mind-set and how he struggles to express himself, but when he is near water, he finds brief solace. Additionally, his moments with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome/Andre Holland) are those that are heightened and intensified by the camera, to convey that Kevin is the only person that shows Chiron any element of romance. Chiron is given the opportunity to let his guard down and be himself around Kevin, even though he struggles to understand who he is.
In the beautiful camerawork of this film, tenderness and sensitivity are exemplified, painting a societal picture of Chiron’s vulnerability under the tough exterior he goes on to cultivate for himself. As an adult (played by Trevante Rhodes), his guarded persona and ability to make dangerous decisions portrays him as a man who wants to avoid facing who he really is. There is no pretence, no over-acting and instead the audience sees a story that is incredibly raw and an accurate account of what it means to be a gay, black man growing up in America today.
You can watch a screening of Moonlight on Friday 9th February at the SOFT cinema at the Penryn campus as part of the Falmouth Film society.