I always look forward to the London Film Festival as it’s a great chance to see upcoming movies which might not be released for some time (or not ever get a general release). However, because the London Literature Festival is happening during the same two week period it means I’m particularly busy with events booked every evening. Last night I had to leave a discussion with Margaret Atwood right before she finished a Q&A with the audience so I could make the start of ‘Moonlight’ but I’m so glad I didn’t miss this extraordinary film!
‘Moonlight’ is the second full-length film from director Barry Jenkins and it’s based on the play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s the story of a boy named Chiron told in three stages of his life (and his character is played by three different actors). Growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood, he’s frequently bullied and often fights with his single mother who is a crack addict. However, he finds mentors in local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae) who care for the boy – not for any sinister reason but only because they see a vulnerable young man who needs help. Their refuge can’t protect him from the increasingly violent bullying he experiences growing into his teenage years. Eventually the abuse becomes so intolerable he reaches a boiling point and it turns him into someone very different from the introverted boy he once was.
It’s so rare to see a complex depiction of masculinity in films – particularly about African American men. ‘Moonlight’ skilfully portrays the way in which a man’s body changes as he grows, how emotions must often be suppressed or hidden in social groups and the struggle to understand and express his sexuality. It does this subtly through the expressions and gestures of the actors as the dialogue is often quite sparse. When Chiron does speak it’s more often about what’s left unsaid. There are a few particularly powerful moments when what he says is a true expression of what he feels. However, the words are difficult to form because he’s gone through such conflicted periods of emotional turmoil.
He’s given nicknames at different ages such as “Little” or “Black” and these labels ironically become appropriated as an integral part of his identity – both informing who he is and defining his place in the world. The film depicts the way men build muscles as armour. It shows how queer feelings are often first expressed only through circuitous routes and then can be wrapped in a vow of silence. It presents how agonizingly difficult it is to express love and forgiveness for a parent who has wronged her child so atrociously.
As complex and nuanced as the film treats the character of Chiron, it approaches the supporting characters with as much sensitivity and these actors give powerful performances. Though we don’t get their full stories we have a glancing awareness of their conflicts. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) battles addiction and inner demons. Teresa (Janelle Monae) shows a humour and strength to raise others out of their difficult circumstances. Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome as a teenager and Andre Holland as an adult) is conflicted between conforming to others’ expectations and asserting what he really wants. These characters portray a layered and dynamic community around Chiron.
I felt such a powerful connection to Chiron’s character even though his life and circumstances were so different from my own. There are some beautifully shot scenes where Chiron spends time at the beach looking out over the water. I think anyone can feel the familiarity of these moments gazing at the sea and seeing there the expanse of everything unexpressed within you. It was a special honour at the screening last night that so many of the cast and crew were there speaking so passionately about how deeply they believe in this film. ‘Moonlight’ gives a perspective that’s so needed in the world right now: a celebration of black bodies, queer desire and the buried emotions of men.