A closeted gay black man in a rough neighborhood in Miami struggles to define who he is and what that means over the course of his life.
This last weekend the TMM podcast sat down with the host of Fountain Street Church’s podcast ‘Listening at the Fire’ Virginia Anzengruber for a double feature of Barry Jenkins’ films. For a lengthy discussion on both “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” check out the podcast episode here!
I had only seen this film once before my rewatch, and that was years ago in theaters. I remember thinking that “Moonlight” was a masterpiece, but not just necessarily for the story it told, more for its ability to capture an intangible emotion and make it feel tactile. There are so many scenes in this film that I can point to and say; “This scene perfectly captures how it feels like to feel safe”, “This is how it feels like to feel loved”, or even “This is how it feels to be alone.” Barry Jenkins has a way of crafting a scene so perfectly that the characters need not even speak for us to know exactly how they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it. There’s something so ethereal yet so human about the way Jenkins crafts this drama about love and its relationship to identity.
Describing the plot of “Moonlight” is difficult. It doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative arch. More than anything it just follows a man through his life as he struggles to figure out who he is and who he wants to become, and how certain outside influences forever alter his perception on human interaction. I’m certain this review will contain a fair amount of spoilers, but at the same time, this movie is pretty much un-spoilable.
The film starts when our protagonist is a boy who goes by the name ‘Little’ (Alex R. Hibbert, “Black Panther”). He’s different from the other boys, but he’s not entirely sure why. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, “Rampage”), is an addict whom gets her drugs from a dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, “Alita: Battle Angel”). One day after Little is chased into a vacant apartment, Juan helps Little out of the apartment and brings him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, “Hidden Figures”). As Little struggles to make a connection with the kids in his class, Juan steps in and acts as a surrogate father, despite the fact that he harbors guilt for his own role in the harder parts in Little’s life by providing drugs to Paula.
There is a scene where Juan takes Little to the beach to teach him how to swim, and in my opinion this scene is the most important scene of the film other than the climax. The swimming scene is one of those scenes that captures an emotion more than it moves the plot forward, but it also sets up a wonderful motif of water as a representation of love and Little/Chiron/Black’s relation to it. As Juan holds Little in the water, allowing him to float he says: “Relax. I got you. I promise. I won’t let you go. […] You in the middle of the world.” The classical music swells, the cinematography is bright and intimate; we’re right there with Little in that moment, floating in the ocean, completely at peace. I honestly think this is a perfectly crafted scene.
In my opinion, the rest of the film is Little trying to find (emotionally) that kind of comfort, safety, and unrequited love again; he’s trying to find a place that replicates that feeling that he had there, that day on the beach with Juan. However, as Little grows up and realizes that he is different from the other kids (the ‘What’s a faggot?’ scene), he also realizes that finding that love and acceptance isn’t going to be easy. He realizes that everyone in the world has certain expectations for him, regardless of if they actually know him or not. The world in which he lives is a tough one, filled with violence and people of ill repute; it’s easier to put up walls than it is for him to be himself.
Part two of this story takes place ten years later when Little has become Chiron (Ashton Sanders, “The Equalizer 2”). By now, Chiron has built up walls around himself; he’s constantly on guard and he’s sort of come to terms with his isolation. There are a few people that see behind his barriers like Teresa, but for the most part, Chiron survives by keeping his head down. His survival style is only half-successful; he doesn’t ever really make connections with anyone, so he never has to expose himself and reveal who he really is, but at the same time he’s bullied constantly. Chiron in part two seems to live in his self-made bubble in acceptance; he’s not happy or content with how his life has turned out, but he doesn’t exactly seem to be making an effort to change who he is either.
Eventually, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and Chiron end up hanging out. Kevin has known around Chiron his whole life, and the two share a sort of unspoken bond. The two smoke a blunt on the beach and Kevin gives Chiron a hand job. The direction in this scene mirrors a lot of the directorial choices made in the swimming scene; the sound design focusing on the sound of waves is incredibly similar, the angles of the cinematography, the general color tone, all of it bodes of that earlier scene. It feels as if Chiron has found that peace, the safety that he was trying to find again; it feels as if he might’ve finally made a connection that would allow him to start lowering those walls he spent so long building. The fact that Chiron seems to have found this place of peace and love makes the following scene even more devastating.
After Chiron and Kevin share a moment on the beach, one of the bullies that had been picking on Kevin forces Kevin to beat up Chiron. Kevin hits Chiron until he can’t get back up, all the while yelling at him to stay down when Chiron keeps standing up defiantly. The scene is devastating not only because it shows a breaking of trust, but it also is the catalyst for Chiron deciding who he will be for the next decade: Black (Trevante Rhodes, “The Predator”).
After Chiron fights back against the bullies he’s sent to juvenile detention. We flash forward ten years, and Chiron has now fully immersed himself in Black’s persona. There’s really no other way to say it: he’s a gangster. He deals drugs and he looks like he could handle himself in a violent situation if things were to go down. He is about as far removed from himself when he was Little on the beach with Juan as can be. Everything about his persona seems to be a front that he devised to protect himself from the world he grew up in.
Black receives a call from Kevin (Andre Holland, “A Wrinkle in Time”) out of the blue, asking him to meet up sometime. Black ends up driving down to see Kevin and the two have dinner and catch up. This is another scene where the emotional subtext is more important than what is actually happening on screen, because what is happening is rather simple. In terms of story Kevin is just cooking for Black. But in terms of theme, Kevin is offering a chance for Black to lower his walls; he’s showing Black that there are people he can be around that he doesn’t have to pretend to be something he isn’t. The way that the scene plays out slowly is brilliant; it allows us time to live in every moment, every shared comfortable silence and appreciate every meaningful look between the two.
I think the thing that I love most about this film is the fact that almost everything is below the surface. It’s all about feelings, and how those feelings and our relationship to those feelings ultimately define who we are. This is an incredibly intimate film that puts more meaning on the relationships and the internal journey than it does moving a story forward with specific plot points. Barry Jenkins’ style is what gives the scenes their depth and meaning, but without the brilliant acting from all three of our leads playing the protagonist, this film wouldn’t have touched as many emotions as it did.
This is a brilliant film, but it’s one I have a hard time nailing down exactly why it is as brilliant as it is. I think for me, it’s Jenkins’ ability to capture emotions- hurt, love, isolation- on film so perfectly. Defining why exactly this film is a masterpiece is sort of like trying to describe love; its almost indescribable, but you can know it and feel it in your heart. Films that do this are as rare as they are important.
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