Writer-director Barry Jenkins renders the emotional realm of Moonlight’s main character in sweeping brush strokes that suggest a life of overheated sensitivity and fragility. Leaves on the top of trees burn through the screen with bright, hot greenness. Blue, a particularly important color in the film, radiates a seductive, vulnerable silkiness. Throughout, the ocean can be heard over the soundtrack, connoting longing, which is heightened by valleys of contemplative silence. Elaborate tracking shots alternately assume a specific character’s point of view and a projected universal perspective, as certain camera pirouettes suggest that the protagonist may be retrospectively imagining the look and feel of moments that he didn’t personally witness. The backgrounds of images are often shallow, expressed in blotches of color, while foregrounds are hyper-clear, with certain elements pushed so close to the front of the image as to achieve a three-dimensional effect.
This impressionistic, seemingly intuitive formality contrasts against a highly organized narrative structure. Moonlight is divided into three interrelated yet distinctly separate acts. Each story concerns a different developmental stage in the life of the African-American Chiron: as a young child, when he’s dubbed Little (Alex Hibbert); as a teenager, when he’s simply called Chiron (Ashton Sanders); and as a man in his 20s, when he’s known as Black (Trevante Rhodes). Tellingly, we first meet Little in flight, running through a dangerous neighborhood, interrupting the business of drug dealers to evade a beating from other kids at his school. Without any expositional highlighting, the audience can discern that this is business as usual for Little, a practiced member of the humiliated and the oppressed.
The film’s first two stories follow a similar pattern, in which the lonely Chiron finds acceptance, briefly enjoying a dignity that’s cruelly counterpointed by an ironic acknowledgement of the difficulty of the world for a black child of a drug addict (Naomie Harris), who’s also gradually coming to terms with the fact that her son is gay. Little talks to Kevin (initially played by Jaden Piner), a boy at school who advises him to show the bullies that he’s “hard.” It’s immediately evident, and will become subsequently more obvious throughout the years, that Chiron and Kevin are simpatico on a mysterious, alternately exhilarating and exasperating level.
Kevin pounces on Little and they wrestle in the playground, as Kevin challenges Little’s ability to defend himself, though it’s more than that; the movement of the children’s bodies has erotic meaning for both of them, as Jenkins refuses to indulge the nonsense of children as existing in a wide-eyed, pre-sexual state. (That’s the kind of smug, sanitized cuteness that pervaded Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.) Rarely has a filmmaker so astutely linked violence with frustrated sex. When they finish wrestling, Little lays on the ground with a look of bliss that recalls a post-orgasmic state.
Equally formidable for Little is his meeting of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer torn between the cultures of Miami and Cuba who can relate on a certain level to the relentless otherness that Chiron, regardless of his age, is doomed to feel. Juan’s deep, graceful benevolence—not only his kindness to Little, but his respect for the child—haunts Moonlight long after the man exits the film. More than Kevin, who betrays Chiron and eventually redeems himself to Black, Juan offers a promise of acceptance, proving to Little that he’s included in the social human contract, worthy of love.
In an overwhelmingly beautiful scene, Juan teaches Little how to swim, the ocean beating against the camera as Juan cradles Little’s head, this act of touch imbued with a transcendent mercy that’s equivalent to a baptism. Juan knows how profoundly Little craves this camaraderie, and Jenkins correspondingly manages to inform the entire film with Chiron’s overarching need, blurring formality and story together into ecstatic empathy. On the beach, Juan tells Little of Cuba, of a woman who once said the black boys looked blue in the moonlight. (The film is an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.) Little asks Juan if he’s called Blue, and the man answers “nah” with a pregnancy that contains multitudes. Blueness and blackness haunt the film as ideals of purity and communion, complementing the extraordinary varieties of black skin that are captured by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton.
Patterns unite the various stories of Chiron. The cradling of one’s head, so important to Little, recurs later in the film, hinting at the acceptance that Chiron craves so badly yet finds so fleeting. Moonlight captures an awful texture of human nature with an unusual degree of understanding: that the more we need something, the less others are inclined to give it to us. The lonely are often guaranteed to remain so, as others can smell this loneliness, greeting it with contemptuous disgust. Throughout the film, sex and kinship are treated as secrets among other people, bonding rituals that Chiron has been decisively and unfairly denied, as he’s been relegated to an asexual and solitary plane with his socially indoctrinated self-hatred.
This is why the use of three actors to play one character proves so resonant. No matter who Chiron becomes, people can discern his core and brutally reject him until he preemptively rejects himself, finding comfort in echoes of the past, such as how his adult bed reminds him of the sheets in the guest room at Juan’s house. Reinventing himself as a drug dealer, in a nod to Juan, Chiron remains at his core a haunted, stunted virgin. Moonlight is so profoundly moving because Jenkins refuses to condescend to Chiron’s misery with glibness, and this beautiful relentlessness scans as artistic reverence.
Jenkins looks into the chasm of a damaged soul and demands from viewers not only an acknowledgement of universality, but a reckoning of acceptance. By film’s end, Black has the bravery to finally voice his desires after years of stifled muteness, and the reciprocation that he receives in return feels like nothing less than a miracle. Yet, this catharsis is undercut by a lingering truth: that many people are allowed to take such a miracle for granted.
Backgrounds of the image are often blurry, but this is an intention of the impressionistic cinematography. Colors are vibrantly hot and bright, and facial and skin details are extraordinary, which is important to a film so concerned with expanding the notion of the African-American image in film. One can discern specific pores, as well as the rich variations of color that can characterize the complexion of a human being. There's grit in the image, especially in the foreground, but this is also intentionally achieved and quite beautiful. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track pristinely preserves the subtle aural effects that bridge the film's three acts together, abounding in echoes and choruses, from the subtle rumbling of the ocean to the variations of songs within Nicholas Brittel's score, which merges classical and R&B music together with diegetic effects to yield a sonic emotional poem. One can discern individual instrumentation, especially the violins, as well as the tumbling of bodies onto the ground or the clasping of hands. This transfer honors the film's bold tactility.
The featurettes are composed of interviews in which Moonlight's various collaborators speak earnestly and poignantly yet often routinely about their work. The best featurette is "Poetry through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight," which briefly allows composer Nicholas Britell to elaborate on how he slowed certain musical motifs down, and expanded instrumentation on recurring songs to illustrate the protagonist's emotional progression. The best overall supplement, however, is the audio commentary with filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who concentrates primarily on the relationship between the characters and their settings, and on the level of behavioral detail that the cast and crew were seeking to capture. Jenkins memorably says that, as a director making his second film nine years after his first, he's still very green, and there were times where he and his collaborators had to wait and "find" the core of a difficult moment, such as a dinner-table conversation between Juan and Little. Jenkins also discusses the film's relevance to his own life, and the inherent pain that inspired his direction, as well as the experience of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the source material. This generous and elegant commentary saves the package from triviality.
Moonlight's unlikely success hopefully implies that the world has yet to slide entirely down a rabbit hole of unbridled bigotry.