Moonlight: a transcendent spectacle

Jonnie Barrow delights in Barry Jenkins' mesmeric exploration of identity

I saw Moonlight at the ACS preview screening almost a month ago. During the Q&A afterwards, one of my all-time favourite artists, Raleigh Ritchie (aka Greyworm on Game of Thrones), said something about the film that really struck me, and which I’ve noticed a lot since: quite a few people, when asked what they think of the film, will tell you how “important” it is: it’s an “important” story that’s being told at such an “important” time about such an “important” subject.

This way of talking about the film is well-meaning, but it’s ultimately an inert and disempowering way of describing such an urgently moving film. Ritchie highlighted that it’s a love story, it’s about black identity and culture, about drugs, sin, and redemption, and growing up—and he begged the audience not to lose sight of these things under a sea of topicality and political correctness.

Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the script was co-written by McCraney and the film’s director, Barry Jenkins. The two found commonalities in their experiences of growing up, and wanted to write a story that both of them could identify with.

The screenplay eschews cliche at every turn; it provides a bracingly truthful look at the black experience, and what it means to turn from a boy into a man.

The film follows Chiron through three stages of his life, and is itself split into three chapters which are named as he is at each age: “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”. Even in the chapter titles, themes of identity, growing up and race are brought to the fore. Moonlight examines a changing, growing life, where core aspects of identity are under scrutiny, as Chiron struggles with both his race and his sexuality as he matures and defines himself in a harsh, uncaring world.

Each chapter features a different actor playing Chiron. Despite none of the three actors meeting during filming, they all seem to capture the same spirit of the character, each of them completely believably inhabiting the same role. It’s a miracle of casting, but requires some deft work in other areas to maintain a cohesive narrative viewpoint.

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In the story’s first chapter, Chiron befriends Juan, a drug dealer played masterfully by an Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali. His performance is, like the script itself, beautifully nuanced – and integral to the film in ways that extend far beyond simply establishing the story.

Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, performs a similarly incredible feat. She’s the only actor who appears in all three of the chapters, providing a connecting throughline that helps to maintain a narrative consistency even while her character experiences a fully-rounded arc.

Jenkins’ command of both the material and his actors is a marvel. Every element of the film is tuned to a fine harmony, from Nicholas Brittell’s Wagnerian yet urban score sometimes taking centre-stage, and then retreating back to let James Laxton’s beautiful, dreamy cinematography rise to the fore, before that too drops back to allow the film’s universally brilliant cast to make the most of a top-notch script.

While the film’s technical elements seem to to dance together, the story itself feels more like a waking dream. Being dropped into this underrepresented world is a little disconcerting, and occasionally not quite as narratively clear as one might like, but it’s never less than mesmerising.

As a white, middle-class male, that Jenkins has managed to craft a film which resonates with me is an incredible achievement. In the midst of all the talk about the film’s “importance”, this crucial element is in danger of being lost. No matter who you are, how you identify, or where you come from, this film has something for you.