NYFF Review: MOONLIGHT Is An Ethereal Portrait Of Black Queer Experience

One of the year’s most stunning films.

“Who is you, Chiron?”

This question posed late in Moonlight’s third segment echoes through the lives of both speaker and subject. Chiron and Kevin, neither kindred spirits nor star-crossed lovers, are played by three actors each in this distinctly cinematic unfurling of time and identity, with each performance set during a different stage of experience, and of self discovery. Yet the portraits feel linked by more than just the page, despite their child, teen, and adult counterparts never having actually met each other. The difficulties of independent production scheduling are, however, no match for the power of specificity of vision, and Barry Jenkins’ extrapolation of this specific experience extends to all corners of the narrative, and of cinematic construction.

Chiron. Little. Black. These are the names thrust on our scrawny Floridian protagonist, from the birth name given to him by his callous, meth-addict mother, to the jeering pseudonym from the boys who chase and beat him, to the playful nickname from the enigmatic Kevin, who veers in and out of Chiron’s self-constructed bubble, aloof enough to warrant intrigue yet within enough proximity to comfort. Names have a central’s place in Moonlight, beginning with Chiron himself (named for the apex Greek centaur, a symbol of masculinity, and yet, a sympathetic outsider), and with Mahershala Ali’s Juan, with whom the film opens.

Like his Biblical namesake John, Juan essentially baptizes the wayward Chiron while teaching him how to swim and to keep his head above water, but his true baptism is Chiron’s unintentional induction into the black masculinity of their locality, which doesn’t manifest until Chiron is of age. It’s during this baptism that Juan imparts a vital lesson to the boy with three names, telling the tale of how he shed his own nickname, the identity once imposed upon him, firmly deciding who he wanted to be.

Juan and his girlfriend Teresa take the neglected Chiron in from time to time – Teresa, not only named for several Roman Catholic saints, but played by Janelle Monáe, is the epitome of kindness. The couple’s unlikely warmth is formative in Chiron’s upbringing, including their having to navigate the young boy’s question of “What’s a faggot?” which clearly stems from bullying and domestic abuse, but even Juan’s kindness isn’t without thorns turned inwards, as this child’s heartbreaking innocence forces him to recognize the domino effect of his own life as a drug dealer.

Alex Hibbert brings quiet courage to the role of young Chiron, alongside Jaden Piner as the outgoing Kevin, who teaches Chiron to stand up for himself. The duo can’t have been older than ten or eleven, and yet their passing of the roles to teenagers Ashton Sanders and Jharrell Jerome feels like the completion of a herculean feat. Sanders and Jerome play them in high school, neither as friends nor as adversaries, but rather as the ‘loser’ and ‘cool kid’ who sometimes come into friendly contact. We are, however, offered insight into the self-construction of these archetypes as they exist within this context. Chiron is still the same withdrawn, skinny outcast, albeit with a somewhat hardened exterior. Teresa is like family now, and she’s his only remaining refuge from the homophobia at school thanks to his mother’s selfish habit. The bullying is as rampant as the testosterone, sending these teens into constant collisions, and while Kevin is the same charming, friendly face, part of that face is forcedly put on, be it the posturing about which women he’s slept with, or the violence he’s forced to commit in order to fit his peers’ masculine standards.

The violence they perpetrate, just as the violence committed against them, goes beyond black eyes and busted lips. It’s emotional scarring that pummels them further into isolation, each instance an extension of the self. For Kevin, it’s an internal struggle for identity made physical, a bisexual teen having to navigate binary social extremes by choosing between the extremes of violence and comfort. For Chiron, it’s searching for comfort in isolation, burying his swollen face in a sink full of ice as the harsh fluorescents of his bathroom – lights that can cause an undesirable strobe on camera, weaponized here by DP James Laxton – pulsate with a building angst that demands release, but will have long-lasting consequences either way.

André Holland and Trevante Rhodes play the adult Kevin and Chiron, in a reunion that acts as a culmination of their respective forms of solutide. Chiron is now transformed, stepping in to the shoes of Juan both socially and physically. His grills, do-rag and street-smart swagger match Mahershala Ali’s like a mirror. His aggression, however, is performative. When he comes face to face with Kevin again, his façade gives way to that same boy whose silent moments filled the space as he processed the world around him. The same lonely, uncertainn glances on the faces of the younger actors, their shoulders slouched ever so slightly, escape Rhodes’ hardened exterior in a way that feels like the unearthing of a time capsule. The question of “Who is Chiron?” is still very much on Moonlight’s lips, just as it’s on Chiron’s.

Even in its silent moments, the film is bustling with an oceanic energy, be it the serene sounds of the waves caressing the shore as Chiron is touched for the first time, or the dialogue continuing as if nothing is amiss when the picture is jarringly different. Be it Kevin or Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomi Harris, who turns in a powerhouse performance wracked with selfishness and guilt), pivotal moments in Chiron’s understanding of the world and the people that fill its voids are underscored, however briefly, with piercing, silent stares, shot subjectively as we continue to hear the words spoken. It’s in these moments that Chiron begins, in some way, to reach a level of understanding about himself.

Ultimately, that’s what Moonlight aims to offer, both graciously and artfully. A level of understanding of the isolation of people, told through the nuances of intertwined queerness and black masculinity while reaching between their layers in ways we don’t often see. Barry Jenkins creates a perfect paradox of a film, treading these waters with caution while simultanously diving in headfirst, creating a portrait that beats with the reality of lived experience, yet bleeds in vivid, mystic hues as it uses the expansion of cinematic time to explore the expansion of the moments where hearts skip.

It’s this understanding of formative moments that punctuates Chiron’s first sexual experience. Its massive, all-encompassing nature in a world where it comes with the promise of love, self-loathing, and even danger. When Kevin reaches out and touches him for the first time, it isn’t just sexual energy they experience. It’s the piercing of the veil of loneliness. It’s understanding itself, embodied by two boys in the moonlight.

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