There’s a 1989 film from filmmaker and gay rights activist Marlon Riggs called “Tongues Untied” that, among other things, addresses the intersection of being black and being gay. Part documentary, part performance art, the movie spoke to the experiences of black gays, a demographic shunned by heterosexual society, white society and even white, gay society. One of its most profound components, however, was the divide between black, gay men and black, straight men, a conflict shown through a hurricane flurry of derogatory slurs throughout the film.
“Tongues Untied” is still so powerful today because very little of our perception of black homosexuality has changed. Black masculinity can be seen throughout pop culture — rap music and action movies come to mind — but there isn’t much room for the sensitive to thrive. Picking up on these same questions 27 years later, “Moonlight,” the second feature for little-known writer-director Barry Jenkins asks us to think critically about where homosexuality and sensitivity can fit into the uber-masculine idea of a black man, as well as why these pressures exist.
“Moonlight” is the fictional life story of main character Chiron in three parts: child, teenager and adult. Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) is a quiet kid with a negligent, drug-addicted mother and a frequent victim of bullying. He might only be six at the beginning of the film, but kids are already calling him a faggot, even though he doesn’t know what it means. The film establishes Chiron’s world and expands it to great effect, giving every minor character an effect on Chiron’s life and development as a person. Particularly his friendship/mentorship with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes a liking to him in the first segment, is beautiful. Jenkins create a sense of recognition between the two people as Juan clearly sees himself in Chiron, the first indication that the life of black men today is cyclical.
Much of the movie takes place in Miami, but when it switches to Atlanta in the adult portion of the story, it’s unnoticeable until someone says it. This feels intentional, like Jenkins is telling us that the city doesn’t matter. As much as “Moonlight” is about Chiron and his burgeoning sexuality, it speaks to the universal experiences of young black men growing up in the city and the cultural pressures acting on them. Characters discuss the necessity of being “hard,” rather than “soft,” not just in and of yourself, but more so than the people around you.
Where does this leave Chiron? “Moonlight” is a fascinating character study more than anything else. The three actors who play him do so quietly and superbly, capturing his inner conflict between who he really is and who his culture is trying to mold him into. Jenkins captures Chiron delicately, often times framing his face in an intimate close-up or placing the camera, and thus the audience, over his shoulder. As universal as this film’s themes are, the director still wants us to see them from Chiron’s perspective.
Jenkins may only be two films into his career, but “Moonlight” feels like the work of a veteran auteur. It maintains a sense of realism, utilizing long and panning shots, but at times the depth of focus and color scheme create this dreamy feeling. Like the dichotomy between hard and soft, straight and gay, the movie goes back and forth between these styles. Some scenes demand the realism, because those moments very well could be real. But others allow Jenkins to explore that blurriness around the edges, that uncertainty of life.
Just about everything in “Moonlight” is incredible. The score is gorgeous, a jarring but familiar orchestral piece that always returns to remind us of life’s cyclical nature. The performances are masterful, especially from Ali and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother. And its story is necessary, especially now when sympathy and understanding are running dry. “Moonlight” asks us to open our eyes to the traps of masculinity and the way we all perpetuate it, and champions remaining honest with ourselves even if we aren’t with others. It’s a film for everyone, regardless of race or sexuality. And it’s the best movie of the year so far.