In 2008, writer and director Barry Jenkins released his debut feature film, a primarily black and white, super -low -budget indie in the mold of Before Sunrise.
Called Medicine for Melancholy, it traced the intersecting paths of two San Franciscans, strangers brought together in a drunken one-night stand: Micah (Wyatt Cenac), single, scraping by as an aquarium installer, with a chip on his shoulder about gentrification; and Jo (Tracey Heggins), unemployed and living in relative splendor off her long distance boyfriend, a successful curator.
They pass a single day in each other’s company, hedging against the loneliness of their real lives, reveling in the illusion of intimacy for as long as they can ignore the knowledge of just how illusory that intimacy is. In a parallel universe these two might end up together, but in this one their connection is tenuous and unearned.
What they have in common is both foundational and marginal: They are black people drawn to the mostly white indie rock scene. But Micah sees the world through a racial lens—“Me, I’m a black man,” he explains. “That’s how I see myself, how the world sees me. I’m black before I’m a man”—and Jo, who spends her days making T-shirts emblazoned with the surnames of obscure female directors, whose boyfriend is white, does not. “That’s your problem,” she protests. “You feel you have to define everybody. You limit them to a point where they’re just a definition, not a person.”
It’s eight years later, and Jenkins has finally unveiled his follow-up film, the luminous, masterful, visually mesmerizing Moonlight, based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unpublished play by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Moonlight is as sprawling as Medicine was confined, as quiet and contemplative as the last film was talky. What Medicine made literal Moonlight sublimates: In Jenkins’s first movie, his characters hash out questions of race and identity over beers; in his second, those quandaries are woven into the narrative fabric, a backdrop for everything without ever explicitly becoming the point.
Moonlight, then, is subtle and evocative, as much a sensory experience as a linear journey. It’s a three-act coming of age story about Chiron, a young gay black man from the housing projects of Miami. When we first meet him he’s a kid (played by Alex Hibbert) cruelly nicknamed “Little” by the bigger boys who make a daily ritual of torturing him.
Chiron is hiding from his tormentors in an abandoned flop house when he’s discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a benevolent crack dealer who, along with his angelic girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), offers refuge from the chaos of the projects, where Chiron lives with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris). We first clock Paula, dressed in nurse’s scrubs and speaking with a Caribbean accent, as an over-protective, single immigrant mother, benignly neglecting her son in her struggle to make ends meet.
In Juan, Chiron sees a model of manhood that’s simultaneously macho and tender; to the outside world he’s a gangster, at home Juan is docile and wise. “At some point,” he advises Chiron, “you gotta decide for yourself who you gotta be.” In one heartrending scene, Chiron finally recognizes the subtext. “What’s a faggot?” he asks. “A word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan replies. “Am I a faggot?” Chiron asks. “You could be gay,” Juan tells him, “but you don’t let anyone call you no faggot.”
By act two, Chiron, now played by Ashton Sanders, is no longer little—he’s a gawky adolescent growing so fast that his jeans can’t quite keep up—but he’s clearly still a boy apart. Juan is no longer around, and Chiron’s sense of being not quite like his peers, now teenagers posturing and trying on thuggish identities, has solidified into something far more vulnerable and alienating.
From his only friend—Kevin, an adept bi-curious code-switcher who brags about banging girls in the stairwells at school but one moonlit night seduces Chiron on a secluded beach—he learns a dangerous lesson about the power of repression: If you act like a hard-ass in public, you can do what you want in private.
It’s a takeaway that leads him first to jail, and then to dealing drugs. By act three, Chiron (now played by the hulking Trevante Rhodes) has taken on a new nickname, Black, part of a re-branding effort that also includes a gold grill, a do-rag, a fancy car, and rippling muscles. It’s a costume of machismo built up to deflect attention from a sexuality that finds its only expression in homo-erotic dreams.
Then Kevin, now a short -order cook with a child and a broken marriage, calls out of the blue, a ghost from the past, a reminder of a Chiron who is by now long stifled. Their reunion plays out in an intense, moving set piece that I won’t spoil.
In the first paragraph of his wonderful New York Times review of the film, A. O. Scott puts it so well I won’t try to do better: “To describe Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s second feature, as a movie about growing up poor, black and gay would be accurate enough. It would also not be wrong to call it a movie about drug abuse, mass incarceration and school violence. But those classifications are also inadequate, so much as to be downright misleading. It would be truer to the mood and spirit of this breathtaking film to say that it’s about teaching a child to swim, about cooking a meal for an old friend, about the feeling of sand on skin and the sound of waves on a darkened beach, about first kisses and lingering regrets.”
Moonlight is very much a film about journey, not destination, about mood and setting, not plot. There’s no great catharsis in the arc of Chiron’s experience, no code to be cracked. There’s just the beauty and the pathos of three moments in a life, slices in time that cumulatively tell us something of how masculinity is forged. It’s the kind of movie that treads softly enough that it’s tough to write about, frustrating to sum up. But it’s insistently memorable. You may not know exactly what to make of Chiron’s story, but you’ll find that it haunts you.
I kept thinking about that line I quoted above from Medicine for Melancholy. Micah’s insistence on classifying, clarifying, even calcifying his own identity ultimately works against him. He wants to “define everybody”; in doing so he limits them “to a definition, not a person.”
It’s this impulse Jenkins fiercely resists. He lets Chiron, and the characters who populate his world, live as people, human beings whose relationships with themselves and with each other shift and swirl and mutate over time. Moonlight is not a film about identity; it’s one that reveals something of the nature of identity. That distinction makes all the difference.