Moonlight: Waxing and Waning, by Rudie Obias
Just cutting to the chase: Moonlight is my favorite movie of the year. It’s simply the best thing I’ve watched that’s deep, layered, and something we never see on the big screen, the coming-of-age of a gay black man in the inner city. Moonlight accomplishes a lot in only 110 minutes and anyone who’s interested in cinema should stop what they’re doing right now, find where this movie is playing at a theater near you, buy a ticket, and watch it in all of its glory and wash over you. It’s an experience that’s deeply engaging and unique.
Moonlight is separated into three parts as it follows the development of Chiron as a child (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and later a man (Trevante Rhodes). In each part, the film’s writer and director Berry Jenkins gives an audience a glimpse of this character at crucial turning points in his life. The film starts off with “Little,” Chiron’s nickname as a kid, as his bigger classmates bully him because he’s quiet, shy, and small. He comes across Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, when he’s trying to hide from his tormentors in an abandoned motel. Little is lost, so Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take him in until he tells him where he lives. Once he opens up, Juan takes him home to be with his single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who is an unhinged emotionally abusive crack addict. Little has a very rough childhood, but finds a connection with Juan, who treats him like a son.
The relationship between Little and Juan is really the key to how he grows up and understands the world around him. Juan is a tough guy on the outside, but we learn that there’s more to him than just a drug dealer. By the end of the first part, we understand that Little will struggle with his identity and place in society throughout his whole life. In the second part titled “Chiron,” we find the same character as a teenager in high school. He’s still bullied and a shy outcast but he finds something very unexpected with his friend Kevin as both characters explore and discover their sexuality.
For the first time, we see Chiron really take to his identity but it’s short lived as a violent rage builds inside of him when his classmates continue to bully and intimidate him. Chiron is eventually pushed to his limits and brutally beats up one of his bullies. As a result, he gets arrested and spends years in prison. In the third part titled “Black,” Chiron is now in his late 20s. He’s bigger and a drug dealer in Atlanta. Chiron takes after Juan in look and personality. He still struggles with his sexuality, as he’s reunited with his old friend Kevin (André Holland), who is now a short order cook in Miami. The two agree to meet up to re-connect, as the film builds to a very quiet and subtle climax.
Jenkins has such a command of this story that you never feel like you’re being led astray or confused based on the movie’s structure. It’s very well made and anchored with the performances of its three lead actors Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes who are just amazing. You never feel like it’s three separate actors playing three different characters; everything is unified on the big screen through the character’s eyes and mannerisms. It’s almost uncanny how well it works, but there’s an authenticity to everything about Moonlight that feels lived in and raw. It’s one of the best acted movies of the year and its supporting cast deserves credit too, especially Mahershala Ali, who nails every bit of his screen time and on-screen presence. Although, he’s only in the film’s first 30 or so minutes, Ali makes a lasting impression throughout the film as it seems almost every decision Chiron makes is filtered through Juan’s guidance and strength.
Moonlight is one of the best movies of the year from a new and exciting voice in cinema. With his second film, Berry Jenkins shows a maturity beyond his years and an artistic vision that’s bold, explosive, and one-of-a-kind. Although Chiron might not be confident himself, Moonlight shows a level of confidence and swagger that goes a long way in storytelling and character work.