MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Coming-of-Age, Drama Director: Barry Jenkins

“Black boys look blue in the moonlight.” It’s a phrase uttered by an older man, Juan, to a troubled young boy, Chiron, an anecdote that illustrates the elder’s point: ultimately, you cannot let others decide who you are; you have to define yourself. It’s a lesson that is both validated and challenged by personal experience, as each individual in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight must come to terms with themselves as individuals while also remaining deeply affected by their intimacy with others. Delving in to issues of gender, sexuality, and identity with sincerity, humility, and ambition, Moonlight feels like watching a masterful poem unfold on screen.

Moonlight is holistically beautiful. Its cinematography, its performances, its narrative, its ideas, its moments–there is an aura of empathy and glory surrounding all of it. Moonlight has a timeless quality to it, structured as three sections in the life of a young black man growing up in Miami during the 1980s and 90s. Yet the timeline is best captured in moments and images: a hand grasping the sand in ecstasy; a sink full of ice water; the chrome on a dashboard; a man teaching a boy how to swim in the surf of the Atlantic. Perhaps most visually striking is the lighting of Moonlight. Everything in the film, particularly human skin and eyes, are aglow with allure and mystery. It’s noticeable when a person’s eyes or skin aren’t flush with this subtle aureole complexion, such as Chiron’s mother, portrayed with gumption and grit by Naomie Harris. She turns what could be a cliched role as the Abusive Drug Addict Parent and creates something with depth that fosters empathy within the viewer. I didn’t like or approve of her actions, but I understood her, despite her presence only as a supporting role. Similarly, Mahershala Ali as Juan, the kind-hearted drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing, gives one of the strongest supporting filmic performances of the year. The strength of this portrayal is not due to long exposition or an abundance of scenes, but rather Ali embodying a complex, humane character through simple gestures and the power of a flicker in his eyes.

A different actor portrays Chiron in each iteration of his identity–Little, Chiron, and Black–and all are simply remarkable in their ability to communicate incredible emotion and soul while still remaining essentially opaque. Chiron is not a talker or overly emotive, but this doesn’t mean he is passive or obtuse. Unlike Boyhood‘s Mason, who often seems to be floating through his own existence as a passive observer, this coming-of-age tale has a protagonist who seizes his identity formation and (to borrow a phrase from another excellent 2016 coming-of-age film) drives it like he stole it. The physical and emotional transformation of Chiron between each chapter is one of the best I’ve ever seen, somehow capturing how human beings go through remarkable personal changes during their life span while still essentially remaining the same person. At each subsequent stage, Chiron is still the same scared boy we saw in the first scene, yet he’s also a wholly new creation, especially by the final act. The fact that the film retains such a strong sense of empathy and authenticity while having different actors embody the same character after large spans of time have passed makes Moonlight a unique and worthy piece of cinematic art.

Is there anything spiritual about Moonlight? In short, the entire film is a spiritual experience. While overt talk of religion or theology are notably absent, the images and emotions of the film embody a sort of spirituality in themselves, an ambiance of the transcendent in a film focused mainly on the human body, its longings and needs, its maturation and affections. Mind, soul, body, will, emotion–these are not necessarily separate ingredients stirred together to create this entity known as “human being.” Moonlight expresses spirituality in its aesthetic, its blues and reds and pinks and purples, the sheen of human skin and the profundity of two people sharing genuine intimacy in a world that attempts to jail them into cultural expectations. Black boys may look blue in the moonlight, yet our skin both houses and shapes our souls, the internal and external as one.

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