Moonlight opens with the cruelest music choice imaginable; Boris Gardiner’s black empowerment anthem “Every Nigger is a Star”, memorably sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album. It’s a brief reminder of self-acceptance that abruptly cuts out as soon as the first shot appears onscreen – moments before we are introduced to a character who is shunned by his peers and tries to hide as much of his personality as possible. Our protagonist is called Chiron, yet across each of the three acts depicting a different period in his life, he is referred to by a different name, often mockingly, as proof that his peers are trying to eradicate an identity that he is already forcibly trying to avoid presenting to a judgemental world.
Despite this initial music cue, as well as the people of colour who make up the cast and the majority of creative roles off screen, this isn’t a movie about coming to terms with black identity; and if it is, that is a seemingly secondary concern to topics that are seldom discussed in cinema to a thoughtful extent quite like this. Moonlight is a film about the warped ideals of masculinity and how it leads to shy, sensitive boys like Chiron forging an existence for themselves that they don’t want, wrestling with their own complex identity issues in the process.
In the first act, when Chiron is just 11, we see him get bullied; before his own identity is even formed, his peers (and his mother) have picked up on something he may not yet be aware of: he is gay. Throughout the course of the drama, which soon follows him during high school and his late twenties, we see one of the most psychologically devastating portrayals of the toll life in the closet can take, especially in an environment that has a stubborn refusal to nurture. It is one of the most emotionally brutal films in recent memory, hitting even harder due to the fantastic performances from the entire ensemble. Even the supporting cast entirely transform into their roles – I was taken aback by the actress playing Chiron’s mother, only to realise that it was Naomie Harris in the biggest cinematic makeover since Charlize Theron in Monster.
Roger Ebert always argued that cinema was an empathy machine, designed to put us in the shoes of lives with which we would never otherwise be able to relate to. Moonlight is one of the best empathy machines imaginable, portraying a life of quiet suffering and misery that you must have a heart of stone to not be moved to tears by. Even the final act, which hints at a Wong Kar-Wai style sense of emotional longing, doesn’t feel like complete redemption. It is hopeful, but to give an unambiguous happy ending would be detrimental to the hard hitting realism that comes before.
Director Barry Jenkins has taken eight years to get this film made – and it is a work of such emotional resonance, regardless of the race, class or sexuality of the viewer, that it is deserving of the unanimous critical acclaim it has received. As a gay man who still has conflicting feelings about self acceptance, due to rhetoric that has been instilled in me from a young age, the anger issues that Chiron has are sadly relatable, whilst the timid hiding of your own personality so others won’t judge you or find out your real self? Even out of the closet, I’m prone to doing that, always trying to be accepted by other people by presenting an image of myself where my sexuality is entirely irrelevant.
Moonlight could never fully live up to the widespread acclaim and hype – but the fact it manages to get close to cinematic perfection is a true testament to how strong the film is. This is utterly absorbing drama, as well as a universally relatable tale of finding your identity in an era of widespread adversity. If that wasn’t enough, it has the best handjob scene in cinema history too.