Glowing blue and basking in the Moonlight
It was on the dimly lit streets of Paris following a hard day’s work where I searched for the cinema showing a midnight screening of Moonlight. It was a fittingly epic setting for what was to follow.
Barry Jenkins’ electrifies the soul with his raw and heartfelt exploration of identity in this searing, much-awaited follow up to Medicine for Melancholy (2008). The collaboration and adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ reaps immense rewards. Moonlight is urgent film making that pierces with immediacy and cultural relevance. The director is exorcising his own demons as the early life of the vulnerable Chiron plays out in a spellbinding triptych. Each awakening a new wave of deep and heartfelt emotion as a young boy grows to become a man in the tough streets of Miami. He is the son of a crack addict mother, an unsurprisingly absent father and at odds with the hyper-masculine social jungle that threatens to suffocate him. Bullied by regressive classmates who prey on his glaring timidity condemns him to the dwell in a tower of loneliness. Moonlight plays like a fever dream, a ravishing wave of cerebral imagery that splinters the mind and serve as a requiem for the lives of many who have been underrepresented.
The neglect from the addict mother, Paula (the transformed Naomie Harris), provides an impressionable and reserved Chiron with little to aspire for. With his mother so intent on satisfying her carnal desires, the pre-teen boy is a lost one. It’s not until local drug lord Juan, the tremendous Mahershala Ali, takes him under his wing along with warm and genuine wife, Teresa that a saviour figures emerges from the most unlikely of places. The dramatic irony of Juan selling his mother drugs is a devastating truth and a microcosm of the vicious cycle affecting inner city communities. The swimming sequence is a heightened experience. A compelling metaphor of the rough waters of life while a storm seemingly erupts on the horizon. Ali’s turn as the conflicted, reflective sinner is career defining. It can be most closely likened to Ryan Gosling’s dramatic role in Derek Cianfrance’s Place Beyond the Pines for its pulverising impact that echoes even more loudly when not on screen.
The search for self is an odyssey charged by the fiery sparks of sexuality and belonging that are ignited beneath the waters. They can be made out. Always burning, undeniably true but drowned out until rekindled by the one who set the fire. Chiron’s relationship with childhood friend Kevin underpins the trilogy. The boy who was different. The one who cared and went against the grain to look out for him. As the pair grow older, the dynamic takes a startling shift. The beach scene is as iconic as it is intoxicating, there’s a sense that we shouldn’t be watching. A watershed moment that ripples across time and space that serves to alter the lives of the two boys indefinitely.
While the chapters blend into one another, there are gaps of time that go unaccounted for. Filling in these lapses takes conscious thought. How did we arrive here? What must have happened in the years preceding? While Jenkins fills in the gaps with sparse dialogue, the questions flow through the mind at a furious pace. It ratchets up the mystery and intrigue around characters that glow blue under the moonlight and burst off the screen into the seats beside us with their completeness.
The fateful final act is where we see the true impact of the events earlier. Naming the three segments with different names: Little, Chiron and Black sums up perfectly the constant search for identity. Ongoing and never quite complete, each section asks important questions: How do we see ourselves? And how is this different to how were seen by others? There’s nothing quite like the car journey in the final act. It’s one of many scenes in Moonlight that will live long in the memory. Inevitable yet disarmingly poignant.