Near the end of Moonlight, the bulked-up Chiron removes his gold grillz to eat the Cuban food prepared for him. The effect is to shrivel him if not strip him of the years. Beneath the chain and thick arms is the same boy with the unknowable face whom the audience saw in the movie’s opening sequences. Moonlight keeps reminding audiences of the present-ness of the past — of how childhood isn’t merely a series of gestures unlearned and buried but rehearsed and performed until these gestures lose their authenticity. This adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play has the diaphanous quality of Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1976 landmark that remains one of the few American film dramas about black men and women with no angle except showing life as lived. Barry Jenkins’ film is not at that level. Stilted, schematic, a film of its historical moment, Moonlight will touch chords anyway.
Although the housing projects could have been from anywhere between the Bronx and Atlanta, the green of palm trees and the vast blueness of the Atlantic are unmistakably Miami. But Chiron, called “Little” because of his size and shyness, doesn’t much notice them. His life is a horror. When the film opens a gang chases him into a condemned motel in Liberty City. Crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) climbs in through one of the boarded-up windows and takes pity on him. As played by Alex Hibbert, Little is so gangly and delicate that one of South Florida’s infrequent breezes could shatter him; worse is a shut-off quality in his eyes. Over a fried chicken dinner Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) demands answers. Little talks but never relaxes — he can’t. With a drug addict mom (Naomie Harris) who manipulates him into giving her money he can find no peace. Thus begins a relationship whose contours are familiar and whose depths need no sounding, like the Atlantic waters in which Juan teaches Little to swim.
In a piece written with great feeling, Hilton Als recounts the absolute silence from his screening audience when Little asks Juan and Teresa what’s a faggot. “A ‘faggot,'” Juan explains, “is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Stated so plainly it’s hard for anyone so accused to tremble. Don’t let the word hurt and it won’t. But the loveliness of Ali’s work as Juan is to treat his definition of the word as an instance of self-awareness; it’s the moment when Little’s difference finally dawns on him. No one who isn’t queer can forget when “faggot” wasn’t like an airborne virus, nor can queers dispel the memory of thinking faggots were what we weren’t; a faggot was what that other guy was. Long before “faggot” was attached to sexual acts we knew it defined a difference; it was a mark, invisible but for a sliver of exiles frightened of exposure. Writer-director Barry Jenkins thinks cinematically, though; the difference — the faggotness — of Little is shown, rarely explained. As Juan teaches him to float on his back, a bobbing camera makes it clear that Little’s never been touched this intimately — maybe never been touched at all.
Those who still think faggots are sex-crazed need realize: the terror of using the five senses is the true distinguishing mark. To touch is to risk exposure; we might get caught wanting the touch. So we learn to flinch from any but the most scripted of greetings; so begins the construction of a sturdy closet. Straights who still wonder why gay men speak in an affected manner must understand the fear undergirding the act of speaking normally, when a syllable might give away our sexuality. In the second part of the film, called “Chiron,” the protagonist, now played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager whose reticence has atrophied to terror, catches himself when he dares to move off script with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the only friend he’ll ever know (Sanders as Chiron looks like the stress of terror has cost him body mass). To banter is to risk exposure. As a teenager, existence is exposure. The bullying worsens. A hazing ritual forces Kevin to pick on Chiron: he must punch him until Chiron stays down. Not long before the young men had shared a joint and a long kiss on the sands of Miami Beach. A hand job had followed, but it matters less than Kevin’s allowing Chiron to nestle his head between Kevin’s head and shoulder.
Before settling the score with the bully, Chiron dowses his face in ice water as if he were Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The mask has fit the man as, years later, Chiron is reborn as a drug lord in the ATL. With his ridiculous musculature, granitic features, and faint smile, he looks a bit like Curtis Jackson (himself playing a character in a trap fantasy named 50 Cent); he’s a parody of macho. When he fucks with one of the corner guys, accusing him of being short on his take, he’s the most amiable of bosses. Then assuming it’s Mama calling from rehab, he answers a late night phone call: Kevin, in Miami working as a chef, curious about Chiron after bumping into a high school acquaintance. He makes the twelve-hour drive to his hometown, unsure what he wants but clear about what he needs — he even brushes his short hair before entering the diner.
What ensues is the most joyous part of Moonlight as Jenkins allows his actors to develop rhythms. Trevante Rhodes’ grown Chiron relaxes over bad red wine in plastic glasses and frijoles negros and bistec de pollo sprinkled with cilantro — a culinary faux pas all too familiar to Miamians, thus an authentic detail. André Holland as Kevin is relentless with the kidding, the light verbal jabs recognized the world over as flirting. Although he’s got a baby mama, the apprising stares he gives Chiron suggest he’s gotten fun elsewhere, maybe even in prison. But Chiron has had no fun — of any kind. If we’re to believe what he confesses to Kevin, he’s never been with…anyone.
This is when Jenkins’ control over the material becomes hamfisted. Based on Moonlight and 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, he’s not yet a natural filmmaker. Critics have praised Moonlight for its poetry, and it has poetry: a didactic poem in heroic couplets. I mentioned “schema” above, and Moonlight‘s last act shudders from the effort of isolating Chiron. Relying on 360 pans to show the world of which the child Chiron will never be a part, Jenkins falls victim later to the traps set by his own ironies. The field of action and line of vision in a play are limited to the size of the stage. Restricting Chiron’s psychological dimensions immobilizes him as a character of flesh and blood. It’s not that I don’t believe Chiron would be ascetic, although I’m tempted; it’s that I’m not sure why it has to be so. He’s Ennis del Mar with workout equipment. Moonlight needs at least a couple of scenes like the one between Chiron and his male employee, even just to show that he sublimates his sexual impulses in banter. Also, the Miami-as-character subtext in some of the features I’ve read is overstated. Jimmy’s Eastside Diner bears too much the traces of painted doors and retractable walls of a theater construction. Jenkins shows no interest in the customers, not even as background. I’m not even sure which beaches Juan and Chiron and Chiron and Kevin visit; Jenkins doesn’t care for exteriors. Sometimes the soundtrack’s classical pretensions don’t match Jenkins’ images in the same way that bromides like “There’s nothing but love and pride in this house,” spoken by Teresa, banalize the experiences.
Fine. Yet unlike Carol, which turned into an unwitting elegy for an epoch of sacrifice and humiliation for queers, Moonlight shimmers with the excitement of artists putting this material onscreen and, in its devastating ten-minute finale, suggesting how to vault through a closing door. It eschews the twaddle of mere “universality.” And it’s connecting — I heard not a breath for one hundred ten minutes and relieved laughter when Rhodes and the marvelous Holland (who’s going to get a lot of phone calls thanks to his work here; what a smile!) got a groove going in that diner. Moonlight opens to the strains of “Every Nigger Is a Star,” an affirmation that mocks Liberty City’s blight. By the time Chiron and Kevin’s last scene Boris Gardiner’s 1971 chestnut sounds like an anthem again.