Every young author is encouraged to “write what you know,” and it’s a particular brand of cut-to-the-bone honesty that makes Moonlight so arresting. Its portrait of life in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami feels real because it is. This is a place where a drug dealer can also be a heroic figure to a frightened boy, where a loving mother can turn into a monster because she is caught in the grip of cocaine. And like so many other communities, it is a place where a boy grappling with his own sexuality can be tortured by bullies.
Little did Tarell Alvin McCraney dream that his deeply-felt play Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue would be adapted and directed by Barry Jenkins, who grew up just a block away from him in Liberty City. Together they paint a picture of one boy’s life that is both harrowing and heartbreaking. Bullied at school and taunted as a “faggot” (a word he doesn’t even understand), Chiron is taken in by a man (Mahershala Ali) who becomes a surrogate father, or big brother, to him. That he also supplies the drugs that make his mother unbearable to live with is just one of the contradictions the boy has to process in his awkward steps toward manhood.
Moonlight is told in three chapters; in the first, Chiron (nicknamed Little) is a mere boy, cowed into near-silence by the unforgiving world around him; in the second (where he’s known as Black), an adolescent who has to fend for himself and prove that he’s not “soft,” and in the third, an adult who has the opportunity to establish himself anew—along with the need to figure out who he really is.
The three actors who plan Chiron are equally effective: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. Ali, who has years of experience but first made a major impression on me as Kevin Spacey’s chief of staff in House of Cards, effortlessly dominates the screen during the first portion of the film. He makes a drug dealer the kind of man who barely has to flex his muscles to assert his power… yet he lives a quiet home life and does everything he can to set Chiron on the right path. Naomie Harris gives an equally impassioned performance as the boy’s mother, who makes his home life a living hell but jealously clings to her role as his guardian.
To be honest, I didn’t comprehend all the street-talk dialogue in this film, but when it reached the final scene I understood the real meaning of everything I had seen and heard.
Isn’t love the one thing we all seek in life? That’s what Moonlight is about.