You can quibble whether “Moonlight” is the best American film of 2016, but it is certainly the most important. Hollywood has failed its public for decades by silencing the voices of African-American creators – the incapacity to nominate any African Americans in the major categories at the Academy Awards last year and the ensuing #OscarsSoWhite controversy is but the most recent mark of shame. “Moonlight” shows us the level of work we’ve been missing. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is assured, arresting and vital.
Graceful cinematography by James Laxton is on display from the first shot, a balletic, 360-degree swoop through the streets of the Liberty City section of Miami. The camera follows a successful drug dealer named Juan (the magisterial Mahershala Ali) as he smoothly converses with an associate. From the start, Ali’s performance is so indelible we could save time at the ceremony by handing him a Best Supporting Actor statuette now.
In a boarded up apartment, Juan runs across a terrified boy named Chiron (Alex Hibbert) and offers him a ride and meal because, “It can’t be no worse out here.” The little man spends time at Juan’s house with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and the scenes there are wonderfully sparse, thick with the unsaid.
As he slowly gains the boy’s trust, Juan takes Chiron to the beach for an extraordinary quasi-baptism in the tumult of the waves. The boy gets pointers on swimming but ultimately takes off furiously by himself.
For all his charm, it’s also true that Juan is supplying crack to Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and when she confronts him – in a great and tragic scene – you see Juan’s charm disintegrate like a ring of smoke against a luscious sunset. Paula’s subsequent pleading with Chiron, “You’re my only,” shows the danger of her python’s embrace.
In addition to being a kid without a stable home, Chiron is growing up gay in a most hostile environment.
This is felt acutely in the second section of the film, where teen Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders) has grown up so fast and poor that his jeans just reach his ankles. He receives his secondary education in a space that functions less as a place of learning than a gladiator school that ends with dropping out or incarceration.
Chiron’s path is the latter and he emerges a different man, the coiled tension of the boy now spread across his muscle-stacked shoulders, his expression obscured by the gold fronts he wears over his teeth. He now goes by “Black” and is played by Trevante Rhodes. While the three actors who inhabit Chiron do not look exactly alike, they share qualities: the way their eyes harden, the way their noses inhale disdainfully, the way they eat their meals with their heads right over the plate.
The same is true of Chiron’s lifelong friend Kevin, played as a child by Jaden Piner, a teen as Jharrel Jerome and as an adult by the irresistible André Holland. So, when a grown up Kevin calls Chiron out of the blue, the man who calls himself Black drives down to see him. Their reunion, with cigarettes, a familiar song on the jukebox, and a chef’s special on the grill, delivers a swoon-inducing romantic moment rarely seen outside the work of Wong Kar-wai.