“In the moonlight black boys look blue.”
In one line Mahershala Ali’s character, the poetic mentor Juan, encompasses the central theme of Moonlight: the painful metamorphosis of growing into black manhood in America.
The independent film, written by Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, was released towards the end of 2016 and is nothing short of a modern-day masterpiece.
Based on the unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film weaves a deeply personal narrative, drawing heavily on McCraney’s and Jenkins’ personal experiences of growing up poor and black in 1980s Miami.
These experiences are embodied in Chiron, the film’s protagonist. A deeply sensitive boy, Chiron is suffocated by social expectations to “be tough” from a young age. The message implicit in this social conditioning is that emotions must always be repressed because to feel is to be weak.
For most of his adolescence Chiron suffers in silence, tormented by his budding sexuality, by his shyness, by his vulnerability. That is, until a resounding betrayal unleashes his anger in a whirlwind, subjecting Chiron to the harsh social ramifications.
In the aftermath Chiron alleges to change himself completely, morphing into Black, the hardened drug dealer and seeming antithesis to Chiron. With one phone call from an old friend, the charismatic Kevin for whom Chiron always felt something more than friendship, Black’s facade begins to soften.
Throughout the film Chiron’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality unwinds both painfully and poetically.
This film is not just beautiful and moving. More than that, it reaches deep inside you as the viewer, forcing you to confront your own fears, sadness, and insecurities. Each actor’s performance is masterful, but in my opinion Ashton Sanders’s portrayal of teenage Chiron is nothing short of creative genius. As I watched his life unfold onscreen, seeing him lost and alone as teenager questioning his sexuality, his life, and his place in the world, I at times felt I was watching myself at 15. Even as I recall it now I feel the tears welling up in profound sadness and understanding for anyone who feels they have to run from their true self.
I don’t mean to reduce Chiron’s story to some universal hardship that all humans intrinsically face. Chiron’s story is of course unique to his experiences as a poor, black, gay young man in America that I do not mean to appropriate. But there is still a thread of humanity that undercuts Moonlight, which the filmmakers intended, meant to reclaim “shared points of human experience so that they might also reside in black communities and be borne out by black bodies, in a time when such depictions” are often erased.
Moonlight in this regard is a necessary film for our time. While Chiron’s intersecting identities as “poor,” “black,” and “gay” all shape his experiences, in the most profound moments of the film, these cultural assignations drift to the background as that core of human understanding comes to foreground. That balance that Jenkins and McCraney strike is what makes Moonlight so masterful and so crucial.