The Following is a review by Benjamin Lee in association with The Guardian Online.
Moonlight review – devastating drama is vital portrait of black gay masculinity in America
Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ bold and uniquely told film about the struggle to accept one’s own sexuality is both heartbreaking and deeply relevant
It’s been a particularly horrifying year for minority groups in America. The increasingly documented inhumanity towards African American men by police and the brutal act of homophobia that took mostly Hispanic lives at a gay club in Orlando have awakened many to the bleak knowledge that progress is stalling and instead, regressive views on race and sexuality are still dangerously pervasive.
Stories of LGBT people of colour have been largely ignored in film or at least relegated to the sidelines while instead, we’re offered up the whitewashed history of Roland Emmerich’s tone deaf Stonewall or straight-friendly Oscarbait like The Danish Girl. But, in a festival season that’s too often populated by quite literally vanilla awards fare, writer/director Barry Jenkins’ astonishing new film is both proudly black and refreshingly queer. It’s a thrilling, deeply necessary work that opens up a much-needed and rarely approached on-screen conversation about the nature of gay masculinity.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film follows the life of a man in three key stages. Initially, we meet nine-year-old Chiron as he runs through the streets of Miami, chased by his peers. He attracts the attention of local drug dealer Jean (Mahershala Ali) who comes to his aid and with the help of his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), he gets him to open up as they take care of him at their home. It becomes a refuge for him, away from his mother Paula (Naomie Harris, giving her best performance since 28 Days Later), a nurse with a crack addiction, who alternates between overbearing affection and cruel neglect.
Chiron is withdrawn and lonely, a target for the boys at school who seem to recognise something within him that’s still a secret to Chiron himself. In one, unforgettably wrenching scene, he asks Jean and Teresa what a faggot is and how he knows if he might be one. By the time we see Chiron in the second chapter, he’s a teenager who’s learned to survive by hiding his sexuality from those around him, slowly developing a tough exterior. But his true identity still haunts him, he cries so much he worries he might “turn into drops” and he remains a bullied and physically abused outcast. In the final stretch, Chiron is a man with a fully developed guard against the world, a toxic masculinity that’s led him down dark and dangerous alleys to avoid facing who he really is.
Despite the difficult subject matter at hand, Jenkins avoids drowning us in despair. There’s a remarkably unexpected focus on the beauty that surrounds Chiron with moments of soaring wonder so perfectly aligned that there’s something almost Malickian about his marriage of lush music and dreamy imagery. It’s an entirely unique vision and wrongfoots us from the start. Similarly, the script avoids cliche and refuses to paint these characters as the stereotypes they’re so often presented as. Chiron’s surrogate father of sorts, played with exceptional deftness by Ali, confounds our worst Hollywoodised expectations. Rather than training Chiron to run drugs for him or grooming him in a predatory manner, he’s giving swimming lessons and telling him that his sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s yet more levity that helps the film from becoming unrelentingly grim.
But Jenkins doesn’t pull any punches in showing the crushing loneliness and horrific violence of being a gay man in a culture where homosexuality is seen as a weakness. We see the visible and invisible scars that develop from a lack of acceptance and by the time we finally meet adult Chiron, played with incredible nuance by ex-athlete Trevante Rhodes, he’s trapped by his own desire, regulating his behaviour to remove anything that could be seen as “gay”. The third act sees him return home to reunite with a school friend (an exceptional performance from Andre Holland) with whom he had his one sexual encounter with during his teenage years. There’s a thrilling, heart-pumping chemistry in these scenes as we see Chiron’s performed toughness fade in the face of a love he’s so sorely needed throughout his tortured life. It’s beautifully choreographed and easily the most believably intimate gay pairing since Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Every single aching glance is a poignant reminder of what Chiron has endured to get here.
Moonlight is a profoundly moving film about growing up as a gay man in disguise, a difficult and damaging journey that’s realised with staggering care and delicacy and one that will resonate with anyone who has had to do the same. We’re starved of these narratives and Jenkins’ electrifying drama showcases why they are so hugely important, providing an audience with a rarely seen portrait of what it really means to be a black gay man in America today. It’s a stunning achievement.