Barry Jenkins' stunning sophomore film, Moonlight, might be the most important movie you see this year. It may also be one of the best, a nice change of pace from message movies that forget to be entertaining. Eight years ago Jenkins made waves with Medicine for Melancholy, a film that explored racial identity through the lens of a cleverly-constructed romantic drama. Identity is once again at the forefront of Jenkins' mind, only this time he has more to say, reflecting on an aspect of being black that is rarely explored in cinema.
Sensuous and illuminating, Moonlight is designed as a triptych of sorts, following a single protagonist who goes by the names of Little, Chiron, and Black in each chapter. Following a staple Jenkins move, that of the 360 rotating camera shot, we are introduced to Juan (Mahershala Ali, always excellent), a Miami drug dealer just making sure his corners are run right. Juan is tough but he's got a good heart, evidenced by his rescuing of runt-sized Little (played by Alex Hibbert) who is holed up in a stash house to get away from bullies. Little is too young to know why the other boys pick on him, but Juan and his loyal girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) know the reason. It comes out when Little asks them what a "faggot" is. They answer the boy with all of the careful, loving insight they can, the exact opposite of the respect shown by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who despises her son.
The opening chapter is the most complex of the three, because so much of Little's formation is through the deliberate actions of others. Juan becomes a surrogate father and mentor, teaching the boy to hold his own and roll with life's punches. Being black is tough enough; being black and gay is damn near impossible. We value our masculinity above all else; it's embedded in us from our music to our favorite athletes to our favorite TV shows, and being gay strikes against that. But Juan isn't a saint. He may be teaching Little to get by but he's also complicit in his mother's addiction. If Moonlight teaches us anything it's that nobody is ever just one thing. Our flaws define us as much as our strengths.
Now going by his given name of Chiron, the second chapter follows the lanky teen (now played by Ashton Sanders) as he finds first love with his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and begins to build the hardened exterior he'll need to survive. The third chapter takes some getting used to, mostly because Chiron's transformation into the muscular, intimidating gold-grilled Black (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is such a jarring shift. One thing that hasn't changed is inability, or unwillingness, to verbalize how he feels. It's something we as black men have been taught from day one, that to express any feelings is to show weakness. Now that Black has taken up the drug trade just like his mentor, showing weakness isn't in the equation. That is until he gets that unexpected phone call from Kevin (played by the excellent Andre Holland), and suddenly he's the skinny, nervous teen again.
Moonlight will inevitably earn some comparison to Brokeback Mountain. It's a fair assessment. Both movies completely rewrite the conversation on what it means to be a gay man. But Moonlight is unquestionably a better film, free from Hollywood melodrama and able to tell a sensitive, deeply personal story without restriction. What's most impressive is Jenkins' ability to do so without hammering a message down our throats, even though there are plenty of opportunities where he could have. At every turn Moonlight defies our expectations; it can be tender at the same time as tough, and says the most often at the quietest moments. From the poignant dialogue to the breath-taking cinematography, Jenkins crafts cinematic poetry that will echo through to his next movie and beyond. Here's hoping we don't have to wait eight years to see what Jenkins does next.
Rating: 4 out of 5