Moonlight chronicles the life of Chiron, a boy growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. The film is broken up into three acts, featuring Chiron at different stages of his life.
In the first act, entitled Little, we meet nine year old Chiron, but here everyone calls him Little. After being chased by a group of boys, Little takes shelter in an abandoned apartment, littered with broken glass and crack pipes. Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him here and begins watching out for the boy. Juan becomes a male role model for Little and their trust is beautifully shown in their day at the beach, where Juan teaches him to swim.
However, Juan is a drug dealer. When he realizes that he has been selling to Little’s mom, Paula (Naomie Harris) it’s a tough pill to swallow. Paula neglects Little to get her fix and verbally abuses him when she’s high. It’s heartbreaking to see Little just stand numb to her and ask Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) about hurtful words he doesn’t understand yet.
Act two, Chiron, shows our protagonist as a teen. Just like his Little self, Chiron is awkward, skinny and innocent, especially compared to the boys around him. They are now defiant young men that openly mock Chiron in class. One night while avoiding his strung out mom, Chiron begins a romantic relationship with the only boy who showed him much kindness, Kevin, who affectionately calls Chiron Black. But back at school, Kevin has a reputation to maintain and beats Chiron when egged on by the other boys. This seems to awaken Chiron into a hardened manhood that leads into Act three, entitled Black.
The Oscar nominated cinematography in Moonlight is a style like no other. Seeing Little run and play with other kids feels free and intimate. I especially loved the style of his dancing scene. Moments with Paula yelling at Little, backlit from the pink neon light in her room are mesmerizing. And yet, there are times where the camera seems to be mounted like a GoPro, especially in car scenes. It’s a bit jarring, yet very authentic, much like the story.
Moonlight is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, film editing, original score and adapted screenplay. Mahershala Ali received his first Oscar nomination for his supporting role, as did Naomie Harris in hers. For directing, Barry Jenkins holds his first Oscar nomination, as well as a nomination for adapted screenplay, that he shares with Tarell Alvin McCraney.
The originality of Moonlight is refreshing and rejuvenating in today’s stale cinema. This is certainly the first story of a young, homosexual, African-American in a rough neighborhood I can recall seeing recently. I hope they unbridled visual here becomes inspirational for many future filmmakers.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”