In too many black coming-of-age films, black people don’t have lives, they have agendas. In 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood,” we get lectured on inner-city crime. 2006’s “ATL” educates us on growing up poor. In 2015’s “Dope,” the main character actually addresses the audience to judge how we expect a black teenager to live. Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” has no agendas. It doesn’t need them. It tells the story of a gay black kid’s coming of age in Miami so clearly and sensitively that it becomes your story.
Working from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins divides “Moonlight” into three acts. Three different actors play the protagonist Chiron at different points in his life.
In the first act, he’s nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert). He lives with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), but finds guidance from a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). In the second, Chiron is an ungainly teenager (now played by Ashton Sanders) struggling with bullies and his closeted sexuality. The final chapter shows us a grown-up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), his now muscular shoulders burdened by the emotional baggage he’s carried all these years.
In Jenkins’s three Chirons, you see the same body language, the same facial tics, the same eyes that project a battered soul.
In capturing Chiron’s experience, Jenkins creates real people. His first feature, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” revealed this gift. In that film, he patiently followed a black man and woman in their 20’s around a gentrifying San Francisco as they walked and talked. Their conversations covered the changing racial makeup of the city, what it means to be black, and how that meaning changes in different situations.
Instead of being a lecture, these ideas flow naturally out of the characters’ interactions. Jenkins writes black people you can imagine bumping into on the street or on the subway.
That authenticity blesses “Moonlight’s” cast beyond the three newcomers who play Chiron. Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland as a childhood friend of Chiron’s, and even singer Janelle Monáe as Chiron’s surrogate mother, suggest deep pools of feeling and lived experience with just a glance.
The film’s craft complements the cast. Cinematography, music, sound design and editing combine to cast a spell that slows us down and draws us in. The film seems to breathe in the summer air. Deep sky blues, pearly shades of white, and the orange glow of street lights wash over us like ocean waves gently splashing ashore.
And behind it all stands Jenkins, whose artistry since “Medicine” has risen from observation to poetry. His twirling camera turns the rough-and-tumble play of black boys into ballet. His wide compositions convey Chiron’s isolation. His gaze savors the telling detail: a look shared between two old friends, as if searching each other’s face for traces of the boy they knew, or a hand clenching in the sand, shivers of desire running through it.
Coming out of the film, I recalled these images so vividly they could have been memories from my life. A few of them are. I know the childhood roughhousing that Jenkins depicts. And I know the fear that can grip boys who act tough so as not to appear “soft.” But anyone watching “Moonlight” will know the struggle to become who you want to be.
The beauty in Jenkins’s film comes from empathizing with Chiron’s experience whether you’ve known a part of it or not. And when his old hurts and buried desires rush back to the surface in “Moonlight’s” climactic scenes, you’ll feel so close to Chiron by then that you’ll want to reach out and hold him.
You’ll want to hold onto “Moonlight,” too.