When we look back on our lives, trying to figure out how we wound up where we are and who we are, there’s a tendency to focus on a few events that, in retrospect, are weighted with course-determining significance. Like snapshots, these pivotal moments get edited together in our minds. We become the directors and stars of our own biopics. That’s also the approach that writer-director Barry Jenkins has taken in his new coming-of-age story, Moonlight — easily one of the most personal and most powerful films of the year.
Adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins’ long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy is a lyrical meditation on identity — racial identity, masculine identity, and sexual identity — that asks what it means to be a black man who’s gay. Or, in the case of Moonlight, what it means to be Chiron. Set in a Miami far from the rococo glitz of South Beach, the film is broken into three intimate and perfectly constructed chapters — “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black” — after the three names our protagonist goes by on his stations-of-the-cross journey from boyhood to adolescence to adulthood.
In the opening third, “Little” is played by Alex R. Hibbert as a quiet, soulful 10-year-old small fry with sad eyes that are constantly cast downward. After being chased by schoolyard bullies, he hides out in an abandoned building where he’s saved by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer who becomes an unexpectedly caring paternal figure since Chiron’s own father is MIA and his mother (Naomie Harris) is spiraling into addiction. Like everyone in Jenkins’ outstanding cast, Ali and Harris turn characters that may smack of stereotypes into real, aching human beings. They reveal three dimensions where other actors might’ve shown two. In the middle section, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is an unpopular 16-year-old high school string bean grappling with desires he doesn’t quite know how to act on. The same bullies who preyed on him as a kid can still smell his otherness and want to snuff it out.
In the final chapter, “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) is almost unrecognizable. He’s bigger, and harder, and his life seems to have taken a tragic turn. Slinging drugs, with a gold grill in his mouth, Chiron’s the reincarnation of Juan. Beneath his bluster, he’s still trying to determine who he is and how he fits into a world where he feels as different and unwelcome as when he was “Little.” But life — and Jenkins’ film — isn’t done with him yet. Throughout this remarkable story, Chiron is repeatedly asked, “Who is you?” and he rarely answers, either because he doesn’t quite know or he’s too scared to say. It isn’t until the movie’s lyrical finale in the glow of the moonlight that he finds something like an answer. A