‘Where is my reflection? … I am rendered invisible.’
So goes a quote from the classic of queer black cinema, Tongues Untied (1989), a film about the enforced cultural invisibility of gay and black Americans. Nearly three decades later, the brilliant Moonlight posits an answer: try looking in the sea.
The sea is the backdrop for three key transformative moments in this drama. In each moment as we hear the waves and see the water lapping on sand, we can feel the tide of protagonist Chiron’s soul tugging at him in a direction of change, sometimes towards acceptance of his sexuality and sometimes away. In and ‘out’.
I find it fascinating that the other truly excellent film nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Manchester by the Sea, is another one where the sea is a major presence. That film saw Casey Affleck seemingly crushed under that body of water’s powerful, intimidating expanse, a terrible and constant reminder of his grief. But in Moonlight it is more complex still: the stunted, coiled, and emotionally damaged main character looks out upon the sea and although he sometimes sees oppression, at other times he sees a chance for rebirth, for transformation.
Because water is amorphous and liable to change, and Moonlight is all about change. It can be slotted into that genre called the ‘bildungsroman’ (coming-of-age narrative) in that it follows a young man’s journey from childhood to adolescence and into early adulthood. This genre is exceedingly old-fashioned, and dates back at least to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796). Still, miraculously, Moonlight succeeds in putting an entirely fresh spin on it.
Its central figure has three names, which are also the names of the three chapters of the film: Little, Chiron, and Black. We first meet him as a silent, damaged, tiny child who knows he is a victim of bullying by kids who call him ‘faggot’, but doesn’t understand what ‘faggot’ means. His mother is addicted to drugs and his father is absent, two clichés that permeate the fictitious worlds and too often the realities of African-American children. ‘Little’ will strike up an unusual friendship with Juan, a drug dealer who is in many ways responsible for his mother’s condition, but who is also a constructive father figure and teaches him how to swim (in the sea).
Juan is a complex character imbued with tremendous gravitas by Mahershala Ali. He shows us what this film knows better than most coming-of-age stories, which is that nobody who is a formative influence on a child is ever going to have a simple good-or-bad binary effect. ‘Little’ may learn some important lessons from this charismatic figure, but he may also become dangerously infected by the allure of criminality.
The next section jumps to the teenage years of Chiron (his birth name). Still facing the daily bullying of uncaring thugs, combined with the diminishing mental health of his still-addicted mother, Chiron must choose between hiding from and confronting his queer urges. He must also choose whether to confront said thugs with aversion and silence, which is his natural state, or with a confrontational violence that he may have picked up from Juan. Who is he: Little or Chiron?
Or Black? The jump from the second to the third part of the film is where the most dramatic change occurs in Chiron. I won’t deign to spoil the surprise, as its jolt is a large part of the film’s power. You must see it for yourself, and then observe what growing up can do to a man’s sense of self. Chiron must confront the conception of his identity in the bravura final twenty minutes of film, which is the finest sequence of moving image I have seen in the past year.
This multilayered man is performed by the triple-threat Alex Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron), and Trevante Rhodes (Black), and if there was any justice in the world they would be sharing the prize for Best Actor with Casey Affleck at the Oscars this year. The rest of the ensemble cast is equally outstanding and includes not just the Oscar-tipped Ali but Naomie Harris (a great turn as the mother, recorded in just three days), Janelle Monáe (not just a mean set of pipes), and Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland (as close friend and potential lover-across-the-ages Kevin).
There are too many people to sing praise to for this intensely cinematic production, which must be seen on the big screen. But special mention to cinematographer James Laxton and of course director Barry Jenkins. Together they forge a distinctive visual style that, in its spiralling tracking shots and dreamy images of mankind subsumed by the natural world has been compared to the films of Terrence Malick.
Perhaps on a surface level this is valid, but Barry Jenkins is a much, much better director than the Malick of late: whereas Malick’s dreaminess is a result of vague on-screen philosophical discussions with himself, Jenkins’ is always at the service of getting deep inside the head of a character for whom verbal expression is a matter of great difficulty. Jenkins’ careful direction of Laxton’s beautifully mounted photography is always in the service of universalising a complex drama about coming to terms with one’s own identity, a crisis that anyone can comprehend and which shoots this film far beyond Malick’s limited reach into the realms of great filmmaking.
Moonlight is that rare thing, and I try really hard not to bandy this term about: a masterpiece.