Both a sweeping and deeply personal story, Moonlight forces viewers to challenge the assumptions they might have about people based on racial and socioeconomic stereotypes. Inspired by the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer/director Barry Jenkins has delivered a thought provoking film about growing up gay and black in inner city America. Viewers witness the youth, adolescence and adulthood of Chiron, trying to make his way in Miami. Essentially three short stories woven together, Moonlight, features the same protagonist throughout, but like real life, other characters from one story to the next; others do not.
The first episode, “Little,” introduces us to Chiron (Alex Hibbert), as an elementary school kid. A small, seemingly shy boy, he’s largely raising himself because his mother (Naomie Harris) is angry and distant. Hiding out from bullies in a dilapidated apartment, Chiron is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali) one of the local drug dealers. Juan takes the boy under his wing, introducing the youngsters to his live-in girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). The two quickly become the mother/father figures for Chiron that he doesn’t have at home. He also finds comfort in brief time spent with Kevin (Jaden Piner) the only boy Chiron’s age that gives him the time of day.
By the second episode, “Chiron” the protagonist (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a teenager and has had to deal with lots of changes. Juan is dead and his mother is in the grips of a crack addiction. Despite doing everything he can to prevent it, Chiron is relentlessly bullied. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains his only friend and he occasionally spends nights at Teresa’s to avoid the chaos around his mother. At the same time, Chiron questions his sexuality, until a passionate encounter with Kevin clarifies things. Unfortunately, peer pressure leads to a violent fight that causes a fissure between the two friends and changes the course of Chiron’s life.
By the time of “Black,” Chiron is an adult. Any hint of the small timid, child gone, he’s become a hulk of a man whose appearance conceals his sensitive nature. Having moved to Atlanta, he’s a drug dealer, who goes by the nickname Black. He reluctantly returns to Miami for an emotional visit with his mother and a reunion with Kevin (Andre Holland) who has turned his life around. These meetings leave Chiron thinking about his past, present, future and the choices he’s made. In the end, the story ends on a more hopeful note than it started.
Moonlight is a quiet, contemplative film. Dialogue is minimal, but effectively pulls you into Chiron’s world, putting you in his difficult shoes. He starts out an innocent child, seeking a safe space. Even as a child, there are countless forces out to mold him into someone he isn’t, because of his environment. Even Juan, who has a heart and serves as a positive role model for Chiron is also a drug dealer, responsible for helping his mother destroy her life.
A true ensemble, Moonlight offers wonderful performances from the cast. As Juan, Mahershala Ali brings a remarkable depth and complexity to the character. Though Juan only appears in the first third of the film, his influence is felt throughout the rest of the film. Naomie Harris may at first appear to be the stereotypical junkie, but her scene towards the end of the film, sober, talking to her grown son, is enlightening and heartbreaking. Equally important is that the three Chirons–Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert–blend seamlessly so we never question we’re watching the same character at different ages.
By using three distinct episodes in his life, we witness Chiron’s development in a way that a more traditional narrative might not have allowed. Director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins wisely grounded the story in a reality that will likely allow most viewers to relate to the material on some level.
Presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Lionsgate has provided a solid 1080p transfer. Clarity and delineation is very good throughout. The print is flawless and the image is clean. The color palette is a subdued amber, orange and teal. The cinematography here is surprisingly beautiful, despite the occasionally bleak subject matter. Colors are vibrant when appropriate and blacks are inky.
The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack offers a pleasant experience, with the occasional sonic boost. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout. The surrounds aren’t given much to do in this talky environment, but handles music cues and outside scenes well. The score fills the soundfield nicely.
English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Writer / Director Barry Jenkins: Clearly pleased to discuss his work, Jenkins provides a running, screen-specific commentary. He covers a broad range of topics including the development of the film, its autobiographical aspects, casting, performances, setting, locations and more. Jenkins is very engaging, which makes for a worthwhile listen.
- Ensemble of Emotion (HD, 21:37) This Featurette includes interviews with Jenkins, , producers Adele Romanski, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, and actors Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes. While bordering on an EPK, we do get some thoughts on the source material and the script adaptation process.
- Poetry Through Collaboration (HD, 10:06) Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell discuss the films music.
- Cruel Beauty (HD, 5:39) Jenkins, Gardner, Romanski, and story writer/executive producer Tarell Alvin McCraney. “Beauty” offer remarks about filming in and the depicting of Miami.
- Digital HD.
Movie title: Moonlight (2016)
Director(s): Barry Jenkins
Actor(s): Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes