Moonlight is a film about identity – how we define ourselves, how we view ourselves, and what we project to the outside world. It’s also about the precarious, constantly shifting nature of identity, and the cause-and-effect relationship between environment and personality. The continuing human struggle of self-actualization is difficult enough without being further hindered by circumstance, and yet that is the sad reality for so many minorities in this country. For proof of open contempt and willful marginalization, look no further than the 2016 presidential election. So inward human frailties are often subject to environmental shifts based on the broader societal frailties.
All of that is a preamble for the ultimate thesis: Moonlight is a masterful meditation on identity within a besieged minority culture.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ film, only his second feature, adopts evolution as a film form. His is the story of a boy becoming a man, in three disparate segments, each with its own powerful significance. That’s not to suggest this is a Greatest Hits piece, a close-up look at the profoundly formative moments in a person’s life. Rather, it’s a study in the slow-but-definitive passage of time, tracing the precise progress of an individual through the decidedly imprecise rhythms of that individual’s story. Moments are fleeting, memories are fluid, but influences weigh heavily on the psyche and the soul.
There is a very clear and singular protagonist in this narrative, though his self-professed identity shifts from one segment to the next, and at varying points he isn’t even the chief actor in his own story. By “actor” I’m not talking about lead vs. supporting (though that is occasionally true as well), but active vs. passive. The boy – known first by nickname “Little,” then by his formal name, Chiron, and later, simply, as “Black” – is a sponge that soaks up his surroundings. He is acted upon moreso than he acts. The story of his life, the essence of which is captured in Jenkins’ screenplay, is not solely of his own making. Influences are innumerable: his single, drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris); a local drug dealer and his wife (Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae), whose home becomes something a safe haven; and school bullies, whose incessant torment becomes a catalyst for identity shape-shifting, both for better and for worse.
In spite of its purposefully segmented nature, Moonlight flows with the sometimes random cadence of individual moments – some of which may be immediately powerful, others which may not become cathartic until much later. Jenkins’ camera captures these moments in ways both naturalistic and expressive – it’s a testament to his grasp of this material that the film deftly pivots between cold realism and cinematic elevation. Because at any given moment, we are either bearing witness to a young man’s environment, or filtering our view through his inner thoughts. The dexterity with which Jenkins operates between second-person and first-person galvanizes the film’s thematic potency – the audience, like the protagonist, is both an active and passive participant in the inexorable crawl of a life.
The film’s not-so-secret thematic undercurrent is homosexuality, the vague whiff of “different” that permits most to treat Little/Chiron/Black as “Other,” a minority even within his own racial minority. The character is played by three actors, each at a different stage of evolution. Little (Alex Hibbert) is quiet, unassuming, unaware. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) flirts with acceptance but the specter of persecution pins him down. Black (Trevante Rhodes) is outwardly defiant but inwardly tortured. And so goes the plight of self-actualization in a world that purports to be evolving but still remains tethered to regressive norms. So influential is the world, so bombarded we are by peers, elders, and certainly media, that reconciling oneself with one’s surroundings is more art than instinct. There are many suppressive paths, and at a certain point one must either submit or seek a way out, guided only by moonlight.