Barry Jenkins’ latest has been one of the most hyped films over the past few months, and with good reason. As soon as the opening shot unfolds, you know that you’re watching something special and unique. Boris Gardiner soundtracks the black screen before we see a car pull up with Mahershala Ali’s drug dealer Juan exiting it. The camera follows him as he crosses the street, lights a cigarette and approaches one of his dealers who is talking down a man in need of a fix. The camera shifts focus and whirls around their exchange before coming back to Juan. I’m a sucker for one-take sequences, but this one does it in such an intimate yet cinematic fashion, completely sucking us into Chiron’s Miami that will shape him. It’s one of the best sequences of the year, immediately sending us to Barry Jenkins’ IMDB to gobble up whatever else he’s done. Barry Jenkins is urgent, unique talent.
Chiron is a young black man growing up in Miami and grappling with his sexual identity. We get three snapshots of his life – as a child where people call him “Little,” his teenage years going by his name Chiron, and roughly a decade later in our time where Jenkins titles him “Black,” calling back to another nickname given to Chiron.
The three actors that make up Chiron – Alex R. Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron) and Trevante Rhodes (Black) – are each terrific. They each have ownership over the role, yet make up an astounding whole. Each of them have a deep understanding of who Chiron is to him, finding their own identity in their scenes. Mahershala Ali is always reliable, and creates a standout presence in limited screen time as Juan, the drug dealer who becomes a sort of father figure to Chiron. Ali and Jenkins completely subvert all stereotypes, making Juan a human first. Ali imbues Juan with a rich sense of history. There’s a personal war going on inside him, and Ali guards Chiron and us from it skillfully. Naomie Harris’ portrayal of Chiron’s addict mother is loud, but felt. The always great Andre Holland matches Rhodes in how they both craft their own versions of their characters throughout time, Holland’s Kevin an old friend and first love of Chiron. Janelle Monae makes a welcome turn on screen in a warm motherly presence.
The photography that Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton create is absolutely breathtaking. They harness natural lighting and neon colorization to create a mystical feeling that is utterly human. Pain and love seem to coexist in each image. The imagery is raw poetry, aching for intimacy. Nicholas Britell’s score resembles a crumbling soul. There’s a 3-4 note theme that gets repeated that resembles the spirit cracking under the pressures of society, trying to call out and get help. Moonlight is an achingly human work, beckoning for empathy and love. One of the last images in the film is an embrace of two souls. It’s not just for Chiron, it’s for us too. Moonlight is a call for empathy, the only antidote for the human experience. We could use some empathy in our lives right now.