‘Moonlight’: An American Masterpiece

“Who is you, Chiron?”

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Chiron is you. Chiron is me. Chiron is all of us. His circumstances may be on the extreme end of isolation, and his experiences may be on the extreme end of unfortunate, but his struggle with identity is universally relatable, gay or not.

Writer-Director Barry Jenkins has crafted a modern American masterpiece on the level of ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Tree of Life.’ The difference is that where those movies sing with epic scope and rhythmic storytelling, ‘Moonlight’ is at its best in its intimacy and stillness.

In the first of three delineated acts, ‘little’ Chiron is played by young Alex R. Hibbert. He grows up in inner-city Miami with Paula, his inattentive, drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and a loose father figure named Juan (Mahershala Ali). 

Juan first meets Chiron after the boy has been teased; chased across the neighborhood for no apparent reason. As Juan continues to interact with Chiron, though, the reason soon becomes clear.  

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Chiron is a quiet, shy, sensitive boy. He doesn’t quite understand himself at this age, but Paula and Juan can see what’s what. The two adults finally have a searing confrontation in which the truth about Chiron comes out.

Their suspicions are proven right when high-school-aged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) faces more intense bullying and social scrutiny. 

His one friend his own age is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Kevin is a character whose charm and affability sneaks up on the viewer, since everyone else around Chiron generally hates him.

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The third act brings the late-twenties Chiron (played here by Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) together in the film’s strongest bit of writing. This thirty or so minutes brings together every theme Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton had previously been alluding to through color, mood, and lighting. Jenkins just couldn’t say it because Chiron didn’t know how to articulate it yet.

Kevin also helps him articulate it. The subtle shock of the last act isn’t that Chiron is gay, but the realization that every decision he’s been able to make for himself in his life has been the product of his environment.

Jenkins wisely doesn’t push this concept by needlessly shoving the hardships of Chiron’s street life in our face. Instead, he uses a delicate, artistic approach in order to make the film as universal as possible. 

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Every frame of this film endears us to all of its characters, including Chiron’s tormentors. By adjusting the lighting such that subtle differences in skin tone are always apparent, Laxton invites us to mentally put together that every character must be having some sort of identity struggle on the fringes of Chiron’s story.

And at the end of the day, don’t we all have an identity crisis at some point?

On top of the excellent technique, the film showcases breathtaking acting from every single member of its featured ensemble. I’m rooting for Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Trevante Rhodes in the Oscar races.

‘Moonlight’ is basically the movie we need at the moment. It is something made with enormous compassion and empathy, and focusing on a subject rarely addressed in art. The gay African-American is still considered somewhat of a taboo subject, and ‘Moonlight’ allows us to see the person behind the taboo.

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It also allows us to see ourselves in someone we might have thought was completely un-relatable. 

Moonlight = A+

‘Moonlight’ is rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.

-George Napper

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