Ever get left speechless? Hear, see, touch, or taste something so rare that you don't want to bruise its petals with your clumsy analysis? That's how I feel about Moonlight—yet that is exactly what I must do.
It feels like a golden era for Black-centered entertainment, for nuanced stories about Black people not made for the white gaze. Shows like Atlanta, Insecure, and even Luke Cage might not seem like high art to some—and in Cage's case, might even feel threatening for the lack of white faces on-screen—but I feel like I waited my whole life to see Black lives not colored in the same exploitative hues that I was weaned on.
To quote Mr. Percy Miller on Solange Knowles's A Seat at the Table: "If you don't understand us and what we been through, then you probably wouldn't understand what this moment is about."
Moonlight starts with a reference to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly—kicking off with a short bit of Boris Gardiner's 1973 "Every Nigger Is a Star." The sample doesn't flip into a G-funk explosion as it does on TPAB, but the quiet, stirring vision that follows is no less deft or lyrical. As the song cuts off, Juan (played by Mahershala Ali), pulls up in his box Impala—pure late-'80s Miami-Dade drug dealer: do-rag, Rolex, and all—and checks his guys on the street. In the midst of a tense negotiation, enforcing the chain of command while expressing concern about his runner's mother, Juan spots a little boy being chased into the same abandoned tenement his boys pitch crack in front of.
Inside the sealed-up hiding place he's found, little Chiron (played in the film's first chapter by Alex Hibbert, whose broken, often-silent sullenness is searingly on-point) catches his breath, waiting long enough for his schoolmate-tormentors to have given up. When Juan comes, at first knocking and then prying the boards from the window, he and Chiron regard each other for a long moment, two dark-Black bodies breathing in the dust and the light.
Pouting, solitary Chiron is given no respite in this world, hated and ridiculed by his peers for reasons he doesn't understand. Juan exemplifies made-man ghetto cool but shows in his gaze that he recognizes the child's unmistakable degree of vulnerability. He doesn't see, as you might expect, a future part of his operation or a potential target for abuse. He sees a lost, broken little boy whose circumstances put him behind the eight ball from the start.
Since I am a self-absorbed emotional wreck, I can never keep from relating things to my own experience, for better or worse, whether it's a stretch or not. I spent most of Moonlight's first chapter wiping away tears; the setting and the characters felt so intimately familiar. I'm glad there was only one person in my row to bear witness, because masculinity, especially Black masculinity, dictates that you cry only at certain times. That kind of emotional convention, with all the expectations and history that accompany it, is just one of the many American delicacies subverted and rendered with uncommon grace and compassion by director Barry Jenkins.
Moonlight pulses with subtle, lived-in details that may just feel like breathing memory to a whole generation of African Americans—the vividness of these fragments were just some of the ways that Jenkins and his exemplary cast flouted expectations. The gorgeous shot of Chiron's addict mother, framed in the apartment hallway, bathed in pink light, silently screaming at him. The principled hustler and his girlfriend who put him up and cook for him. Swimming lessons in the dark ocean, the original trust fall. I've been seeing similar things in stories about growing up Black and poor my whole Black, poor life—but never as beautifully free of exploitative cliché or as richly suffused by humanity as Moonlight.
I can't imagine what it must be like to be Black and queer and see something as vital and rare as Moonlight for the first time. (I pray, too, that queer Black voices, and not just straight ones like mine, or White ones, come to dominate the discussion about this film.) To some—his classmates, even his mother—Chiron's queerness marks him as a victim from a young age. Even though everybody seems to see it on him like a mark, he himself doesn't understand.
In one heartbreaking scene that gets right to the heart of why this film succeeds, Chiron asks Juan at the dinner table what a "faggot" is. That Juan's pained but loving answer surprises any of us is a shame. (When little Chiron draws a line between his mother's issues and Juan's chosen trade, the aching mask of shame on Ali's face speaks horrible, guilty volumes. There will be no flimsy caricatures here.)
A powerful loneliness positively radiates from Chiron in all three phases of his life depicted here, a loneliness only temporarily eased by Juan, his lady Teresa (a terrifically warm Janelle Monáe, no robot here), and his childhood friend Kevin—whose blustering hetero-machismo shows that he knows the rules, allowing him to hide from the world in a way that Chiron just can't. When a well-meaning Kevin goads him into wrestling, to prove that he's not soft, the camera catches their blurring limbs, clearly foreshadowing the future entanglement of their lives, but somehow avoids extending the visual suggestion to a level that would be supremely creepy in lesser hands.
When later years find a teenage Chiron and Kevin on the beach, bathed in the titular glow, finding each other by design or by coincidence, the moment is rendered with a tenderness as infinite as the lapping waves.
"You cry?" Kevin asks Chiron.
"I cry so much sometimes, I feel like I'ma turn to drops," Chiron answers.
When Chiron admits that he wants to "do a lot of things that don't make sense," the more experienced Kevin doesn't reject him. He literally takes Chiron into his hands, assuring him that those things make perfect sense. Jenkins's direction of this scene is anything but salacious, and the young men's embrace—and Kevin's refusal to let Chiron apologize after—again short-circuited my expectations. These Black men are allowed to love each other on their terms.
When peer pressure does force Kevin to later lash out at Chiron, it sets off a chain of events that result in Chiron's final form in the film: a muscular, jail-hardened Atlanta dope dealer in a do-rag and golds, pushing a donk and checking his runners just like Juan. Every bit the young Black male that gives Real America nightmares, Chiron still carries that loneliness, as he travels home to reunite with his mother, now living in a rehab facility, and with Kevin, now a short-order cook and server.
Both homecomings threaten to unravel the armor Chiron has grown, to pry the boards off his sanctuary's windows. But what's most unexpected is that these lives may just get to live, happily and understood, at least to some degree.
America hasn't left much room for that outcome, and neither has the art we see about it. Our narratives deliver tragedy, spectacle, and melodrama. Stories like Moonlight, told humanely and intelligently, with complexity, nuance, and hope, may help more of its children envision their own.