It is a rare thing indeed to experience a film which shines a light on people and places often ignored by mainstream cinema and yet know that it will touch anyone who comes to see it, simply because it is beautifully told and its themes are universal in their humanity. Moonlight, the story of one black man’s struggle for identity on the tough inner-city streets of Miami, is that film, and it is a masterpiece.
Based on a story by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is told in three parts, with different actors taking on the role of lead character Chiron as he goes through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. From the beginning, it is clear that life is hard for this young boy growing up in Miami. Nicknamed ‘Little’, he is bullied at school by classmates who assume he is gay and his home life with single-mom Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse teetering on the verge of drug addiction, is fraught. Against this backdrop though, Chiron does encounter kindness and rare moments of joy in his relationships with local big man Juan (Mahershala Ali) and classmate Kevin. With each significant time shift, we discover just how these experiences have shaped his life. The most devastating reveal comes in the final chapter, as we rejoin Chiron (now called Black) prowling the streets of the neighbourhood in a flash car. Determined that no one will ever hurt him again either physically or emotionally, the sweet Chiron seems to have disappeared, until an encounter with someone from his past puts all of that in question.
Jenkins, who grew up on the very streets where the film was shot, has created a film which is audacious in both storytelling and visual style, yet feels utterly authentic. The ensemble cast, including Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert and Trevante Rhodes, who play Chiron at different ages, are uniformly excellent and Harris (unrecognisable from her role in the James Bond films) gives a performance so fierce, you won’t be able to take your eyes off her.