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Writer-director Barry Jenkins made waves with his 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy. Not only did it give the hipster-romance-indie genre a much-needed shot of artistic vigour, but — unlike most of those films — it also took place in a United States where race and class are defining aspects of life. Jenkins’ sophomore feature Moonlight makes good on Melancholy’s promise. This is an impeccably crafted study of African American masculinity from a vital creative voice in contemporary cinema.
Though his story is set in Miami, Jenkins shuns the familiar neon-lit aesthetic that the likes of Michael Mann have associated with the Florida hot spot. Instead, he shows a different kind of life, miles away from South Beach, in an area hit by a crack epidemic. It’s here that we meet young Chiron.
Bullied at school and beaten down by a harsh home life, Chiron risks becoming a statistic: another Black man dominated and ultimately destroyed by the system. Despite his small stature and taciturn nature, Chiron is a survivor, and, as he grows, it becomes clear that his real battle isn’t even on the streets. It’s an internal one: reckoning with his complex love for his best friend.
Moonlight takes Chiron from childhood to his teens to adulthood, but it absolutely defies coming-of-age conventions. Instead of offering a clear progression of time, Jenkins plunges us into an atmospheric subjectivity, an impressionistic vision of Chiron’s psyche in which sensuality, pain, and unhealed wounds take centre stage with staggering power.
Anchored in an unforgettable performance by emerging talent Trevante Rhodes (as the older Chiron), Moonlight explores the human need to feel connected. But although its themes could be called “universal,” they are firmly grounded in a specific understanding of African American experience. Winner of the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (for Mahershala Ali, in his star-making turn as Chiron’s childhood father figure), this film was waiting to be made — and Jenkins was the one to make it.
Official Selection, 2016 Toronto International Film Festival