In Barry Jenkins’s debut feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), a man and woman who have had a one-night stand spend the next day assessing each other over food, art gallery visits, and debates on race, gentrification and fidelity. Jenkins strips the frames of nearly all colour but keeps the camera close to the temporary lovers, travelling all over their faces and bodies as they merge their individual selves for a few moments of shared passion.
Jenkins’s second feature Moonlight is just as intimate, but far more carefully constructed. The near monochrome of Medicine for Melancholy has been replaced by the blazing hot pastels of Florida and expressionist blacks and blues. The handheld camerawork that previously signalled tentativeness makes way for an equal part fluid and static style that includes sweeping shots and bold close-ups. Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton (who also shot the first film) swirls his camera round in smooth waves, but he often halts to regard the vivid faces of the cast and register their thoughts. Cinema is overflowing with coming-of-age narratives, but in Moonlight, the journey of a gay black man, which unfolds across three chapters, has freshness, imagination and control that are the marks of true accomplishment.
The triptych signals its boldness in the opening sequence, in which a whirling take introduces small-time crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) to Little (Alex Hibbert). Juan is taken by the grave-looking child, who is struggling with burdens too heavy for his scrawny shoulders. Little’s single shambolic mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a drug user, and the boy regularly gravitates towards Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janella Monae) for meals and a clean bed. Juan’s love for the boy, beautifully explored in the sequence in which a swimming lesson resembles a baptism, emboldens Little to ask him the meaning of the word “faggot”.
Little has fallen in love with his classmate Kevin, and after an encounter on a moonlit night on a beach, the shy and mumbling teenager tentatively approaches manhood. As Little grows up into Chiron (Ashton Sanders), he takes Juan’s place on the street corner. Chiron’s body has filled out and he has the outward manner of a neighbourhood tough, but the gold grills on his healthy teeth indicate that the boy on the beach is still hiding his true self. The opportunity to liberate the tied tongue comes when Kevin (Andre Holland) invites Chiron for dinner – and a possible date.
Jenkins pays tribute in several scenes to a stated inspiration – the films of Hong Kong master Wong Kar Wai. A sequence in which Chiron drives in a car to meet Kevin, which has Caetano Veloso’s version of the Spanish song Cucurrucucu Paloma in the background, is a faithful reconstruction of Wong’s gay-themed Happy Together (1997). Frames and moments from Wong’s other films show up in other places too. What Jenkins is unable to do, and it is not for want of trying, is recreate the suppressed crackle of the encounters between the leads of Wong’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000). Chiron’s date with Kevin has its share of leading conversations and meaningful close-ups, but in this segment, Jenkins’s hold over his material is less supple than in the previous chapters.
Nestled within the grand themes of homophobia in the black community, alternate sexuality, and limited employment opportunities for black men in America is a deeply subjective, intensely felt and at time oneiric exploration of the state of Chiron’s heart. Chiron’s experiences, especially with Kevin, have the quality of a dream in a waking state. Chiron’s personal struggle carries through the remarkably unified performances of the three actors who play the character over the years. The actors share more than body language – the forward-shoulder walk and the hard stare – they vividly depict the boy-to-adult journey into the inner self.
Two other performances add their heft to the saga of self-discovery. Mahershala Ali is marvellous as Juan, the father whom Little never knew, and Naomie Harris is equally stunning as the tragic Paula, whose inability to comprehend her son’s complex feelings results in memorable moments of self-harm.