Color looms large in Moonlight. The film is adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and two characters are called Black and Blue. According to IndieWire, director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton adjusted the lighting contrast to emphasize the skin tones of the African-American cast. Each of the film’s three chapters, covering different stages in the life of its protagonist, emulates different film stock to convey distinct hues and textures.
Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Moonlight tracks the life of its male lead across varying ages, though in this case the character is played by different actors at different ages. The film is an episodic, intimate portrait of the urban experience, in kinship with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. And, as in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, homosexuality is examined in a traditionally masculine setting—in the former, it was the cowboy culture of the American West; in Jenkins’s film, it’s the African-American inner city.
The cultural norms and struggles facing people of color are central to this tripartite story. Each segment is labeled using a different name for Chiron, the film’s main character, with whom Jenkins has several things in common. Each was born in Liberty City, an impoverished area of Miami, Florida. Each was abandoned by his father at an early age. Each had a mother addicted to drugs, and each was mostly raised by another woman in his neighborhood due to his mother’s addiction.
As a nine-year-old, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is nicknamed “Little” for his size and meek affect. After being chased by neighborhood kids into a crack den, Little is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards), a crack dealer, and his girlfriend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe). Juan becomes the father figure Little never had, to the consternation of Paula (Naomie Harris), Little’s emotionally abusive mother.
Chiron also befriends Kevin (Jaden Piner), and they form a budding bond that blossoms into a sexual relationship once he (now played by Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) become teenagers. Chiron’s closeted but burgeoning homosexuality also makes him the target of hazing by a school bully named Terrel, perhaps compensating for his own sexual identity confusion. It all culminates in a betrayal by Kevin and a violent reprisal that lands Chiron in juvenile detention.
The adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now going by the name “Black,” is a hardened street hustler who has conspicuously emulated Juan’s physical appearance and illicit trade. An unexpected phone call from Kevin (André Holland), now working in a diner, brings Black back to Miami, where he visits his mother and reunites with his old pal.
Jenkins’s highly stylized filmmaking conjures a milieu that feels both real and ethereal. Every character and relationship in the film is strained or broken. Certain narrative details, such as the circumstances surrounding Juan’s fate between the first two acts and Paula’s transformation between the second two, are wisely left to the informed imagination.
The acting is uniformly sublime, with the performers opting for grace notes over broad strokes. Juan carries a quiet dignity subtly saddled with the guilt of his vocation. Sanders’s Chiron simultaneously channels seething rage, sorrow, and desperation. As Black exits his car to reunite with Kevin, he nervously brushes his hair and pulls a blousy long-sleeve shirt over his more menacing tank top.
While Chiron’s sexuality figures prominently, Jenkins’s depiction of other paradoxes in the black community is similarly unsparing. When Juan confronts Paula about the way her crack addiction is affecting her parenting, she aptly retorts that he and his minions are the ones dealing drugs to her and other mothers in their community.
Chiron is an emblem of the layered struggles of black masculinity, but the film is mostly a meditative character study about self-discovery. In the first act, Juan explains to Little that a woman in Cuba used to call him Blue because “in moonlight, black boys look blue,” an allusion to the title of the film's source material. When Little asks him if he minds the old woman calling him that, Juan responds, “You can’t let people decide for you who you are going to be.”