Nov. 1 2016 03:39 PM

Barry Jenkins’ decade-spanning chronicle of a young black man is an essential movie of the moment


This year of all years, we need Moonlight. It's a film that believes in people, specifically characters who inspire deep wells of empathy in each other instead of hatred and anger. Through their eyes we see how patience and resilience can alter one's perspective for the better, cutting through multiple levels of struggle that can't be resolved easily. If our divided America is looking in the mirror trying to figure out what the future looks like, Moonlight reflects a complex portrait of compassion and community that still feels humanly possible.

Barry Jenkins' decades-spanning drama understands words can fail us at times. So its pristine images often speak for themselves. As a young black man named Chiron struggles with identity and purpose while growing up in a rough neighborhood outside of Miami, the film defies its coming-of-age genre boundaries with a liberated camera, sublime sense of pacing and startlingly cohesive performances.

Three different actors headline separate vignettes that take place during pivotal time periods of Chiron's life. Each gains its title from names he has received either by friends or birth. All feature constant battles surrounding his mother's (Naomie Harris) drug abuse and a relentless feeling of isolation. We see nine-year old "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert) for the first time being chased through abandoned projects by a group of tormentors. There he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a community drug dealer who takes a keen interest in the boy's well-being and eventually becomes his surrogate father figure.

Moonlight's second segment is at times surreal. Now a conflicted teenager, "Black" (Ashton Sanders) retreats from the consistent bullying at school by shutting down emotionally, sequestering a series of confusing desires he feels inside. But one singular experience with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a longtime classmate, inspires Chiron to express personal emotions that up to this point have felt alien. The starry-eyed moment both teenagers share on the beach is the definition of intimacy.

The film's final third finds Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in his late twenties working the drug game in Atlanta. He's seemingly taken all the wrong advice that Juan gave him years before. Yet another chance meeting with Kevin (André Holland) allows both men to revisit feelings of unchecked happiness that have lingered for nearly a decade. During an extended sequence inside an old timey diner, Moonlight comes full circle in ways that up until now had seemed impossible.

Despite displaying the scope of an epic, Jenkins' longing film remains compact and personal, never indulging in self-important resolutions about social issues and class division. Those hard-nosed realities exist in the background and are presented normally without a hint of sensationalism or politics. As a result, we see how these factors may influence but not define a young man's life.

Whereas most recent indie films use shaky hand-held visuals as a crutch, Moonlight is blissfully fluid. Its images effortlessly glide alongside Chiron even when things get tough, the light-footed camera lingering on complicated men and women with endless admiration. Many great examples abound, but none more luminescent than when Juan's girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) sits at the dinner table gleaming with a wise smirk, or the shot of Kevin smiling as he strolls away from Chiron to put a special song on the jukebox.

Yes, this year of all years we need Moonlight, which opens Friday, Nov. 4. It's a film of the future, presenting a cinematic space where being in the presence of black bodies does not inspire fear or angst. Jenkins' sublime and resonant drama refuses to indulge in stereotypes surrounding hot-button issues like racism, crime, and drug abuse. Sadly, this level of complexity feels revolutionary when compared to the way most mainstream media continues to portray people of color with imbalanced and inaccurate representation. Black lives not only matter in Moonlight, they change and evolve with the passage of time.


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