There is a line in the second verse of Boris Gardiner’s 1973 song “Every N****r is a Star,” which opens Barry Jenkins sophomore film Moonlight, that states “I have walked the streets alone, twenty years I’ve been on my own, to be hated and despised…no one to sympathize.” Rarely has an opening song, for which the audience only gets a small taste of in the film, so effectively encapsulated the somber beauty of what is about to come. And make no mistake, there is plenty beauty within Moonlight to behold. Providing one of the most authentic and richly complex studies of modern African-American masculinity to be captured on film, Moonlight is an astonishing piece of cinema.
Set within the poorer side of Miami, where streets are filled with dilapidated houses and drug dealers are around every corner, Jenkins introduces us to the complicated life of Chiron, known as “little” to the few friends he actually has. Living with his belligerent mother (Naomie Harris), and routinely bullied by the boys at school, Chiron struggles to contain the constant emotional pain he feels. Though he has not even reached a point where he can define his own sexuality, let alone even understand the terminology that comes with it, those around him frequently hurl homophobic slurs at him. They take his softness and sensitivity as confirmation of what his sexual identity will be.
The only people who really seem to see Chiron as the innocent child he is are Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who become like surrogate parents to him when his mother is on one of her numerous benders. As Chiron ages, he finds that his struggles are only intensified by his environment. As much as he tries to ignore those intent on breaking him down, it is only a matter time before the unrelenting nature of the societal system he lives in -one where the positive options for black men are few and far between- pushes him to the brink.
Charting three distinct stages of Chiron’s life, during which the character is played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes respectively, Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale unlike anything you have seen before. Telling its story under the neon glow of Florida, the film’s depiction of black masculinity, one in which everyone is playing the part expected of them, rather than who they really are, is refreshingly honest. As much as one wants to pull for Chiron to leave his volatile situation and live a happy life, the film never toys with the notion of a happy Hollywood style ending. For Chiron, like many young males in these communities, the uncertainty of the future is the only real constant.
The best one can hope for is that Chiron at least figures out how to be at peace with his sexuality, including sorting out his feelings for his best friend. It is a credit to both Jenkins’ direction, the film was shot in a mere 25 days, and the sensational performances from the entire ensemble, that Moonlight crackles with the intensity that it does. He avoids many of the typical conventions expected from the boy venturing to man narrative, and instead presents a realistic depiction of the struggles to find connection within a society that unjustly treats you as a pariah for simply being yourself. Easily one of the most emotionally resonating and visually stunning works to hit theatres in quite a while, Moonlight is a tour-de-force on all fronts. It is not only one of the year’s best films, but one of the greatest works ever to depict the modern African-American male experience onscreen.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.