- LEARNING TO SWIM: The heartache of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) unfolds in three parts in Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's theater piece, "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue."
Think of "Moonlight" as a triptych, as a medieval panel painting divided into three segments, perhaps depicting three different stages of the life of Jesus.
The first part of the movie focuses upon the youth of our main character, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a young black boy from the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Regularly bullied at school, and with his mother (Naomie Harris) somewhat emotionally unstable (due in part to drug abuse), the shy and awkward Chiron ends up finding his need for adult friendship and love in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan's girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Granted, this relationship is complicated by the fact that Juan runs a local crack-dealing operation, but he is nothing less than honest with the young boy. Juan teaches him how to swim in the ocean and speaks only words of acceptance when the young Chiron expresses a growing awareness of being gay.
Part two of our triptych depicts the crucifixion. Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a high school student. The bullying is worse than ever now, and the culture of manhood takes hold in school, demanding the sacrifice of those who do not meet its level of brash cruelty. Moreover, his mother is nearing the breakdown stage of her addiction, even stealing her son's modest pocket money. Chiron's only reprieve is his friendship (and maybe something more?) with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), but even that ends in betrayal and blood. And thus is the stage set for our third part, a resurrection, when Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes), many years down the line, returns to Miami to confront the place and the people who shaped the man he became.
Critics often describe movies as "sensual" or "a visual feast" when enthralled with the way a movie is shot, but director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton use other inventive means to captivate the senses. For one, the camera placement ages with the viewer; in the first part, many scenes are shot upward, reflecting the smaller stature of Chiron, but at the end, the camera interacts with people straight-on. Too, the film regularly employs close-ups, sometimes even reducing the action, such as two children roughhousing, to an impressionistic blur that gives greater weight to the sound. "Moonlight" offers a rich texture of sound, making auditory centerpieces of the crashing of waves, the lighting of a gas stove, or the crunch of glass beneath a shoe. The effect of so much sensory input, combined with the story told through it, has the effect of breaking down the comfortable Cartesian dualism of mind versus body, or, as the late Leonard Cohen sang, "Your body's really you."
Because that's the central issue here. Yes, "Moonlight" is about race in America and the cycles of poverty and crime. But, more than anything else, "Moonlight" is about the unreality of masculinity. We pretend that masculinity has some relation to the body, that boys and men cannot help their violent and misogynistic ways (whether it's written in the genes or a function of testosterone), but by telling this story at three different points in the life of Chiron, we see how he and his friends and enemies make conscious decisions to perform a specific kind of masculinity in certain situations. Indeed, the three actors playing Chiron imbue their roles with continuity of gestures while exhibiting the individuality of their respective ages, allowing the viewer to see what lies at the core of Chiron's being and what is perhaps affectation.
The perfection of each performance and the skill of the filmmaking absolutely capture the senses, and leave much more to contemplate long after the credits have rolled. As the Zen philosopher Eihei Dogen observed, a dewdrop can reflect the whole moon; it can show so much more than it contains. So, too, does the movie "Moonlight" reveal itself more and more profound, more and more beautiful, upon reflection.