What does it mean to be normal?This is a thematic question that has animated countless films, plays, and novels. Be it a high school comedy or historical epic, the desire to fit in is an animating force throughout one's life just as it is in film, especially in films that are coming-of-age narratives like Boyhood or Stand By Me. In recent years, we've been treated to films like Girlhood and Pariah that identify gender, race, and sexuality as essential elements in narratives that too often often restrict their focus to white male heteronormativity. By acknowledging these fundamental aspects that go into shaping one’s sense of self, filmmakers like Dee Rees and Céline Sciamma have helped to decentralize the coming-of-age genre, moving the focusfrom the suburban or traditionally white communities in which such movies typically take place and repositioning these narratives within urban neighborhoods in New York or Paris and centered around and starring female protagonists of color whose sexuality is essential to their story.
And while the aforementioned filmmakers have done much to revivify a genre of film that has grown increasingly staid in the past few decades, it wasn't until I saw Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight that I began to experienced and appreciate the untapped originality that comes to the surface when you shift the camera’s focus to individuals and areas whose stories we don’t typically see in theaters. By adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins has managed to make a major film about a seemingly commonplace story that we actually have never quite seen on screen before. Gone is the gregarious white protagonist, replaced with the frighteningly quiet, saucer-eyed Chiron who clearly does not fit in with his peers for reasons entirely out of his control. Structurally, the film separates its story into three distinct acts taken at three pivotal points in Chiron’s childhood, teen years, and as a young man, forcing the viewer to follow the different character threads that stop and pick up again ten years later. The pressure to at least acknowledge the conventions of coming-of-age stories and the desire to flout them in order tell a story that feels true to both its character's development and its geographical-historical context is a tension that animates Moonlight and gives the film a certain vulnerability and honesty that is rarely seen.
Opening with Boris Gardener's classic soul song "Every Nigger is a Star"--a song that was criminally overlooked until Kendrick Lamar famously used it to open his acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly-- that achieves a similar ground-level --cinematographer James Laxton's enveloping camerawork and Jenkins’ attention to detail immediately immerses the viewer in the sweltering heat of 1990s Miami when the city was in the midst of a crack-cocaine epidemic. Gardener's song of black empowerment creating an unsettling juxtaposition against what we see onscreenas a drug addict implores a dealer for some sympathy, powerless in his addiction. Overseeing this opening tableau is Mahershala Ali's Juan, a prominent drug dealer whose path crosses with Alex R. Hibbert's Chiron, who runs into a trap house to escape his bullies. Despite being unable to coax a single word out of the little Chiron, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, a beacon of warmth and acceptance played by Janelle Monáe, take the boy in for the night.
The specter of drugs hangs over every street and home with Juan helping to facilitate the direction in which the flood of crack cocaine often flowed: black communities. Ali's character is confronted by the paradox of his fatherly interest in Chiron and his means of income when he catches Chiron’s mother, Paula (played by the Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris) lighting up on his block. An incensed Ali, also nominated for an Oscar, confronts the mother who has no ear for his disapproval, throwing the hypocrisy of his profession back in his face. This jarring scene comes shortly after one of the film's most touching and iconic moments when Juan takes Chiron swimming in the ocean, composer Nicholas Britten's subtly breathtaking score accentuating the ethereal quality of cinematographer James Laxton’s fluid camera, which dips above and below the water, placing the viewer in the moment as Chiron floats in the water, his mentor's hands held out beneath, never letting go.
As Jenkins moves the story into its second act, Juan’s hands slowly disappear from Chiron’s life as we follow the somber teen (played to devastating effect by Ashton Sanders) as he navigates the growing pressures both at home with his mother’s drug problem robbing him of any stability and at school where he’s a regular target for a particularly vicious peer and his cronies. Jenkins deftly teases out the homoeroticism in these Chiron's violent encounters through Laxton’s lingering camera, catching the myriad emotions of confusion and anger running across both teens’ faces. The confusing interrelation between sex and violence is directly manifested in Chiron’s coded exchanges with Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in this act) whose friendly flirtations stick with Chiron in ways that reverberate throughout the film’s final third. Present in all three acts as an outgoing, supportive friend, and later flirtation, Kevin is everything Chiron is not: outgoing, confident, and assured in his sexuality.
Ending the second act on a sudden and unexpected note, the film quickly resumes its measured tempo as we’re confronted with a much different Chiron, now in his mid-twenties, than we’ve come to expect. Speaking to the cyclical nature of drug dealing, Chiron (played with aplomb in this act by Trevante Rhodes) is a burly drug dealer in Atlanta replete with grill and crown dashboard ornament, the same one that had sat proudly in Juan’s car signaling to the viewer Chiron’s taking after the man who was the primary father figure in his life. The film comes full circle when Chiron receives a call from Kevin out of the blue, sending him back to the hometown he had long abandoned. The reunion between Chiron and Kevin (André Holland, who is as charming as he is captivating) serves as the movie’s narrative and emotional climax, one in which Jenkins and his ever-moving camera finally take a rest as Chiron reveals the uncertainty and confusion that boils underneath his brusque facade almost in spite of himself, disarmed by the unconditional acceptance offered by Kevin.
As the film ends on a deliciously ambiguous not, Jenkins never lets Moonlight be bogged down by some extra-filmic message or agenda, allowing his characters to just exist. In fact, the viewer soon begins to realize just how singular of a film Moonlight is in its refusal to adhere to any other rhythm or conventions other than its own. This dynamic is best articulated by single fleeting moment, one that occurs near the movie’s beginning The lineage of films Moonlight both belongs to and radically departs from crystallizes in an early scene briefly reminiscent of Boyhood’s iconic laying-on-the-ground opening shot. A young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) lies on the cool grass, but as a result of being thrown down upon the ground by his erstwhile friend, Kevin, who is seeking to help him get hard, or tough. It’s near impossible not to think of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me at this or many other moments throughout the film Jenkins as the film paints a portrait of black male life as one marked by fear, and vulnerability, but also containing moments of beauty that poke through the crack to give both the characters and the audience the power to push on. Where Boyhood told a story centered around choice and the decisions many of us are confronted with in life, Moonlight can feel fatalistic at times, with the characters' arcs often following their due courses, but this is a result of Jenkins unflinchingly showing the process by which cultural norms shape and stunt our true selves. It also bears noting that where Boyhood featured virtually no black actors, which made sense as it took place in the exurbs of Houston, there is nary a white character in Moonlight. But just as that racial fact does not make Boyhood a “white” film, Moonlight is not purely a black film as it looks beyond race to the burdens and expectations of gender and sexuality and in doing so, attains a universalist quality that makes this film without a doubt one of the greatest achievements in recent American film.
In addition to what we see happening in the film, the music in Moonlight is a revelation in of itself, with Nicholas Britten’s hauntingly gorgeous score paired with R&B classics and popular songs of the time to create a rich sonic backdrop. Perhaps the soundtrack’s most singular moment comes not from Britell, but from the rapper Jidenna--who is signed to Monae’s Wondaland imprint--when Chiron plays a chopped-and-screwed version of the hit song “Classic Man,” the song’s boastfulness slowed down to a narcotic pace, causing the now-baritone voice of the singer’s claims of being a man of style and grace to ring almost hollow, or at least uncertain. Played both on his way to see Kevin and after Kevin is in the car, the fact that a nationally charted pop song is rendered in such an alien form speaks to the geographical specificity of Jenkins’ story as chopped-and-screwed versions of rap hits is a southern rap music tradition dating back to Houston’s late DJ Screw. While the song perfectly captures the subtext of both scenes in which it’s played, it also signifies a certain reclaiming on the part of Jenkins, a way for him to once again take a form which we’re already familiar with and contort it into something radically new and profound.