One of my favorite quotes about film comes from the late, great film critic Roger Ebert. He said: Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy and good ones make us into better people. I don't know if I'm a better person after watching Moonlight but the film enabled me to see the world with new eyes. I was so immersed in the story that I became a little disoriented. When the film ended, I felt I knew Chiron better than the people I meet everyday.
Moonlight is based on a play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. But there is nothing stagey in the telling. The film is both starkly realistic and intensely poetic. It's an unflinching document of a specific time – Miami during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s – but it's also a deeply personal story about the three stages of a man's life.
We first meet Chiron as a lonely, bullied boy who goes by the nickname Little. His mother – a brilliant performance by Naomie Harris – is slowly slipping into addiction. Little's size and gentle manner make him instant fodder for the other boys. He finds a smidgen of peace with Juan – an Oscar-nominated performance by Mahershala Ali. Juan is the local drug dealer. So even as he becomes a father figure to Little, Juan slowly decimates Little's home by supplying drugs to his mother. It's a vicious, unending cycle of violence, poverty and rage.
Chiron grows up struggling to deal with his repressed homosexuality. He makes a connection – emotional and sexual – with the singular friend he has. But the tenderness ends in tragedy and when we see Chiron again, he has transformed into an impenetrable, muscled thug. But behind the granite body and gold capped teeth, you can still see Little struggling with his acute isolation and trying to find his place in the world. Early in the film, Juan tells Little – At some point, you have to decide for yourself who you want to be. It takes Little a lifetime to come to grips with that.
The most remarkable thing about Moonlight is that the three stages of the character are played by different actors – Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. But it feels like all of them inhabit the same consciousness. The camerawork by James Laxton is staggeringly beautiful and the meticulous background score by Nicholas Britell only heightens the epic sense of tragedy. This film has sorrow in its bones but Jenkins leaves you with something like hope. Chiron finds comfort, which is the closest this life will come to a happy ending.
I saw the uncensored version of Moonlight. I can only hope that the version you see at your local multiplex is not too badly butchered. Because this is a wonderful film and I urge you to make time for it.