Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins
Personal Essay by Courtney Anderson
i. “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.”
Nothing prepared me for “Moonlight.”
Not the reviews I read. Not the interviews with Trevante Rhoades (Adult Chiron), Andre Holland (Adult Kevin) and Mahershala Ali (Juan). Not watching the trailer five times.
Reading about “Moonlight” did not at all prepare me for all of “Moonlight.”
It was almost too much.
I took “Moonlight” in slowly.
First, the cinematography, which tells a story all on its own. Then, Juan, a man that, upon first meeting him, I realized I’ve known my entire life.
Then, Little (Alex Hibbert), his eyes wide, his heart still open despite all of the abuse he’s already endured.
Then, young Kevin, well-meaning and kind, but already trying to perform a harmful masculinity, a violent, toxic thing too often forced onto little Black boys.
Act 1 somehow managed to go by way too fast while also being very slow and patient, crashing over me like the waves of the ocean. I desperately wanted to spend more time Little, and with Juan. They were strangers, but my family. They were foreign, but familiar. They were Black, and made to be hard. But they were also soft and blue.
ii. “You Ain’t Ever Done Anything Like That Before, Huh?”
Act 2 was hard on me.
I think it’s maybe because I recognize teenaged Chiron. I recognize the young Black boy struggling to understand himself while trying to survive the world around him.
I recognize teenaged Kevin, someone who is desperately trying to blend in, to be what everyone expects him to be, because it’s much easier than being himself.
I even recognize Paula (Naomie Harris), now completely possessed by drug addiction, trying to keep her own head above water without acknowledging — or even recognizing — just how painful it is for her son.
Part of that recognition comes from the astonishing performances. The intensity of Ashton Sanders, the easy-going nature of Jharrel Jerome (a performance so natural that it made the final moments of part 2 all the more difficult) and the frenzied, heart-breaking behavior of Paula combined to create an act that forced me to remember experiences I’d thought I’d long forgotten.
When Kevin and Chiron had their moment on the beach — a moment that goes on to inform who Chiron becomes in the third act — I allowed myself to feel slightly optimistic, even though I knew that I shouldn’t have.
Maybe it was the composition of the scene, how the scene took such care to remind the audience, “Yes, this is real, this is happening to Chiron, this is what they both want.” I felt happy for these boys who were allowing themselves a rare moment of tenderness.
But, in the final moments, that tenderness was shattered. And so was I.
iii. “What Did You Expect?”
Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes are an odd match made in Heaven.
They have a quiet, powerful chemistry that created quiet, powerful scenes. They made Kevin and Chiron feel right, despite how awkward the first reunion in a decade should be. Their scenes were shy and tense, yet sexy and enticing.
Typically, reunion scenes follow similar formulas: characters meet, characters catch up. One character has a conflict with another. Characters decide whether or not this was a good decision. Characters part. While “Moonlights” final act follows this formula, it does so in a way that managed to make me feel unprepared for what was going to happen next.
But, then again, the entire film is like that. Conventions made anew. Familiarity suddenly feeling unfamiliar and scary.
I don’t want to call Act 3 a “perfect” ending. There’s no such thing as a perfect ending in real life. And “Moonlight” is real life. Little is real life. Chiron is real life. Black is real life. Trevante performance reminds me of that because he was all three people in one body. Black is still Chiron; Black is still Little. He may have grown up to follow in Juan’s footsteps, but he is still himself and himself only.
I knew Chiron and Kevin weren’t going to kiss. How could they, when Chiron is still so uncertain? But that moment Chiron did allow himself — the tender touch Kevin gave — instilled more hope in me than I can articulate.
I have to be honest and say that I don’t believe in total “universality” of films, especially not “Moonlight.” Chiron’s narrative is one that is so often ignored that the idea that “everyone” can find themselves in him confuses me.
But I know Chiron. I knew him growing up. I know him now. I know the questions he has; the frustrations, anxiety, anger and sadness he feels. I know them because I’ve felt them.
And, like Chiron, I sometimes still do.