Despite my love of the film medium and the extensive number of films I have seen over the years, there are very few films I would describe as “beautiful.” I have seen and loved films that are extremely entertaining visual spectacles, artistically shot and emotionally evocative. I have seen films that have made me laugh, cry, suffer moral outrage, or examine a critical life lesson. Remarkably, Moonlight is all of these things, which is an artistic feat in and of itself, but it is also something more than the sum of its parts. Writer-director Barry Jenkins has crafted one of the few films that could accurately be described as a thing of beauty.
Told in three parts, Moonlight is the story of a young black man told at three different stages of his life: Childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At these different stages he goes by the names Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively. We see Chiron—as his birth name it is the one used most consistently throughout the film—grow and develop from the impacts that people have on him. As a child, a kindly man and his girlfriend offer him a place to stay while his drug-abusing mother kicks him out of the house. That same mother is the only biological family in his life, so his relationship with her is as complicated as it is destructive. He has a best friend at school that he becomes close with as he struggles with an attraction to men that he cannot speak to anyone openly about.
No other film has ever so deeply examined the intersection of growing up Black and poor in America with the gay experience, standing out not just as one of the few representations of gay men of color on film but as a testament to the hardship that those men face in being true to themselves as they struggle to survive. A recurring question throughout the film is, “Who is you, Chiron?” Masculinity is as performative as any other gender identity, and shows of strength are so important to survival in impoverished Black spaces that it is both moving and heartbreaking to see a sensitive gay boy harden into a solemn, solitary man to preserve his safety.
On a technical level, Moonlight shines not only in its superbly naturalistic writing and its gracefully nuanced performances, but its cinematography is at once understated and gorgeously executed. The camera gracefully dances around its subjects, yet never becomes disorienting and often will provide just the visual cues we need so that vital information is communicated without characters having to break immersion to spell out exposition. It is never pretentious in these reveals, often just relying on the reverse-shot perspective shift to convey something that upends our understanding of the scene. The actors give uniformly inspired performances, but in particular Mahershala Ali deserves as many Best Supporting Actor awards as possible for a role that is as heartwarming and heartbreaking as it is all too brief and restrained.
Even as a film lover and critic, rarely do I come across a film so completely and utterly moving and game-changing. This is a new take on Black masculinity in film that is so genuine and lived-in that it can’t help but speak to the Black and queer communities in a way that other films just haven’t and likely won’t to the same extent for a long time. This is a film that transcends normal categorization of greatness, not only for its technical skill and impactful lessons and perspectives, but also for its existence in this place and time as the only film of its kind. Moonlight is a must-see film that will have ramifications for years to come.