Cultural stereotypes are deeply ingrained in popular entertainment. This is especially true for film, where “types” of people often serve as a kind of storytelling shorthand, moving the plot forward while perpetuating false assumptions about those people. The practice is so widespread it can be difficult to see, but it also makes the absence of cultural stereotypes in a particular film all the more striking.
That’s the first of many qualities distinguishing writer-director Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary Moonlight. Loosely based on an unproduced work by award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film tells an autobiographical coming-of-age story of a gay black man navigating the mean streets of Miami during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
But even that bare-bones description is misleading, if only because Moonlight defies expectations of how gay characters and people of color can be depicted on screen. It won audience awards at several regional film festivals in the past two months (including the recent New Orleans Film Festival) because its moving story is relatable for anyone who ever felt like an outsider — which is just about everyone.
Like many great films, Moonlight immerses viewers in the rich details of a particular time and place but uses those specifics to generate a timeless and universal feel. McCraney and Jenkins grew up one block apart and went to the same schools at the same time in Miami’s tough Liberty City neighborhood, but they never met before working on the film. McCraney is openly gay and Jenkins is straight, and each was raised under difficult circumstances by a drug-addicted mother. There’s an emotional authenticity to Moonlight that’s grounded in the true-life experiences of two talented but very different artists.
Jenkins’ film tells its story in three parts set at different points in its protagonist’s life. When we meet Chiron in the first part, he’s a 10-year-old boy whose peers bully him because he’s different, though he doesn’t yet know what sets him apart. Local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, Remy from Netflix’s House of Cards and Cottonmouth in Luke Cage) and his girlfriend Teresa (pop superstar Janelle Monae in her feature debut) try to fill the parenting void left by Chiron’s crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris). The second part finds a teenage Chiron contending with his emerging sexuality, and the last segment depicts him as a man in his mid-20s who may not be the adult we anticipated.
Three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) portray Chiron at different ages. Though they never rehearsed together or saw each other’s in-progress work, the actors’ performances match perfectly and add up to a single, complex character. The entire ensemble rises to the challenge represented by Jenkins’ poetic but extremely sparse screenplay. Seldom has so much been said with so few words on film.
Moonlight’s vision of Miami transcends the superficial party-town image often found in movies. It’s a place where extreme hardship contrasts sharply with the city’s vivid colors and tropical weather, and wide-open spaces suggest a chance at freedom that for many remains just out of reach.
Though it depicts a neighborhood in crisis, Moonlight’s heightened reality and focus on Chiron’s heartbreaking struggles ensure that it’s no social-issue film. It’s more a meditation on the nature of identity — how our circumstances, experiences and choices combine to make us who we are. There can be no tidy resolution at the end of the Chiron’s story because he — like the rest of us — remains a work in progress.
Moonlight starts today, Nov. 4, at the Canal Place and Prytania theaters.