‘Moonlight’ Is a Powerful Exploration of Young Black Manhood and Sexuality

Barry Jenkins's triptych is, by turns, heartbreaking, moving, and romantic.

It’s striking, right away, how much of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is told from the perspective of its protagonist. I’m not just talking about how we only see things he sees, glimpses of arguments and assignations that are quickly ended when he makes his presence known. I’m talking about literal perspective, explicitly point-of-view photography, taken from the lower eye-line of the youngest version of the young man we’ll follow for its 110 minutes. It underscores the specific value of this film, which tells us a story from a viewpoint we’ve seen so rarely, it’s all but invisible. This is a vivid and tremblingly lived-in portrait of young black manhood and sexuality, rendered with genuine power and grace. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and most moviegoers probably haven’t either.

Jenkins tells his story in three parts, each titled after his protagonist’s current moniker, each capturing him at a different age, played by a different actor. When he’s young, he’s called “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert) and he is bullied mercilessly, for reasons no one can quite pinpoint. But he’s taken under the wing of Juan (Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards), the neighborhood drug dealer, who feeds him, teaches him how to swim, and seems genuinely wounded by the way Little’s mother (Naomie Harris, all but unrecognizable) disregards him.

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As a teen, he goes by his proper name, “Chiron,” and still feels an outcast; in one wonderful shot, Jenkins puts him in the middle of a crowd that he tries as hard as he can to disappear into, and fails. There’s a loneliness to this young man, coupled with a discomfort that’s so raw and open, it’s hard to watch (Ashton Sanders, the actor who plays him, puts across all of his unease without resorting to easy telegraphing). One night on the beach, he smokes a joint with Kevin, one of the few young men in his school who doesn’t seem to hate him, and they share a sexual encounter of remarkable tenderness; watch how many times Chiron looks up at Kevin in the run-up to their first kiss, afraid that it’s a fake out, that at any minute the young man’s lips will be replaced by a fist.

More time passes. As an adult, going by the nickname “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), he lives a life very much like Juan’s. At the end of the previous section, we’ve seen how all of his rage, frustration, and terror has finally come out of him – how not only his sexuality but his sensitivity makes him a target, and how he has learned to bury it, out of necessity. But one night, it all comes back to him like a thunderbolt, as Kevin (now played by The Knick’s Andre Holland) calls him out of the blue, and invites him to drop by the restaurant where he works.

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What follows is a sequence of such perfection that an explanation turns into merely a list of its virtues. The offhand way Black gets himself together in the parking lot before he goes inside. The way Kevin insists, to his taciturn friend, that they’re on “Grandma rules”: “Yo ass eat, yo ass speak.” But most of all, there’s something extraordinary about the way Jenkins lets every second of this encounter just play out. There are moments where his style is striking, where camera moves and expressionistic lighting and deliberately absent sound display true virtuosity, but here, he steps away, a risk that pays off in a sequence whose authenticity and truth is bottomless. When Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” plays on the jukebox and he just holds on their faces as they hear the lyrics (“Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby ohhh / It seems like a mighty long time”) you don’t ever want him to cut away. We’ve seen how opaque our protagonist has become, but the more time he spends in that restaurant, the more warmth shines through; Kevin puts the light in his eyes, and as the scene continues, his mask trembles, ever so slightly. And then it falls.

That’s the scene where Moonlight goes from goodness to greatness, where the force of Jenkins’s intentions becomes clear, and overwhelming. This is an exceptional motion picture, emotional and powerful and beautifully rendered and true, but movies like this – and Ava DuVernay’s The Middle of Nowhere, and Dee Rees’s Pariah, and so many more – aren’t just about that (through they’re commendable on those terms as well). They’re about a million stories we haven’t been told, while so many others have been told again, and again, and again. Don’t let this one slip away.

Moonlight is out Friday in limited release.