Moonlight ★★★★★

Early in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a scene in which Miami drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), teaches shy young Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert in the first act of the film) how to swim. It comes as Juan is waking to the fact that Chiron, bullied at school and increasingly ignored at home, is to become part of his life. The scene is one of many that complicates stereotypes and assumptions about people: Juan's life is one that explicitly damages people (this much we see play out), but he is not without humanity, becoming the most important male role model in Chiron's life. The scene also exemplifies the power of Moonlight: it's a baptism. In all of Moonlight's three acts portraying Chiron at various ages — childhood, adolescence, and adulthood — the influence of Juan is felt on Chiron's life. Juan accepts Chiron as a son, a friend, a stranger in need, and Chiron bathes in the ocean in a symbolic act of acceptance. As the moon pulls the tides, so does Chiron keep finding himself at the ocean's edge pulled by his own struggle with self-acceptance. "What's a faggot?" he asks Juan and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) in a moment that will take the breath out the theatre. This is a film about masculinity, yes, but specifically black masculinity, and Juan's response could not be more important.

Chiron is remarkably well-realised by three different actors, each of whom embodies the ways in which the character is being and has been shaped by an ostensibly uncaring world. But despite the ways in which Chiron is ignored, abused, or otherwise confused, Moonlight is a tone poem about empathy. Chiron is never without people who love him, even as the film lives in the nuances of those relationships. It is achingly personal, even as the feelings of regret and uncertainty it evokes are universal. Based on a play (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney), Moonlight makes the most of its adaptation to a filmic medium. Jenkins' camera lingers on the one thing you don't get on the page or the stage: close-ups of actors' faces. Jenkins uses vivid expressions, eyes, the pauses between what is said and unsaid—along with a camera that luxuriates in light, colour, and skin tones—to capture a life in rich detail that for all accounts goes unseen by the world around it.

There is such grace and tragedy in Jenkins' portrait of masculine identity and relationships. Moonlight is a quiet film, beautifully-shot and exquisitely scored and soundtracked. It is a film that asks how we learn to be that which we are, how the systems and relationships we find ourselves in demand of us and take from us desires, opportunities, and connections. And it does all of this without ever catering to the expectations of Hollywood (white) audiences. So richly specific and evocative of the people and places inhabiting the movie, Moonlight proves why (and how) we need more onscreen representation of uderserved stories of marginalized people. It never fetishizes or displays it characters in a way that denies their humanity. It never revels in the hopelessness of their lives. At the centre of Moonlight, what holds all of these stories together, is the capacity to express love and the tragedy of refusing to do that.

Moonlight is a masterpiece, not just of queer black cinema, but of cinema.

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