Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali (left) plays Juan, Chiron's father figure. He won Best Supporting Actor for the role.

On the surface, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) exudes masculine power. His large, well-defined muscles and quietly resonant voice do him well to intimidate a fellow drug dealer who admits that he came up short in the day’s earnings. 

Before the dealer has a chance to quiver, Chiron softly says he was just kidding and that the ordeal was a test of the dealer’s ability to handle stress. Cut to Chiron sitting in a Miami Diner, though now he barely says two words at a time, and his eyes are perpetually glued to the table. Kevin, a childhood friend Chiron hasn’t seen in nearly 10 years and the first and only human with whom he was physically intimate, is cooking him Cuban food. Kevin ends up doing all the talking in his reunion with Chiron, while the initial hulking swagger of Chiron fades into the self-doubting and socially scared vulnerability of his childhood persona.

“Moonlight,” based on screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” charts the aches of an outsider’s adult development in an impoverished and predominantly black Liberty City, Miami community. From three different points in Chiron’s life, “Moonlight” highlights a man withdrawing into himself upon discovering he can’t formally assimilate into his community’s niches. With its intimate cinematography and naturalistic performances, “Moonlight” shows how one’s environment, race and sexuality defines one’s worldview, and how such a worldview can impact an individual’s search for love and intimacy. “Moonlight’s” perspective isn’t featured in modern American cinema as frequently as it should be, yet its effectiveness in communicating said perspective is definitely worth experiencing.

At the forefront of “Moonlight” is director Barry Jenkins and playwright McCraney’s screenplay expertly crafting the rhythms and diction of how people realistically speak, while at the same time emphasizing both the internal and external tensions amongst its characters. The actors all utilize Chiron’s stiff body language and speech, in addition to often conveying intent and thought through mere shifts of the eyes, washing away any sort of performative artifice in the process.

It’s worth noting that Jenkins didn’t allow the three actors portraying Chiron to meet during filming, and it’s a testament to both the skills of the actors and the strength of Jenkins and McCraney’s writing that Chiron’s characterization remains consistent and organic throughout.

Mahershala Ali as Chiron’s father figure, Juan, may not appear for very long, yet Ali’s intimately realistic performance, through both his gestures and sense of warmth, leave a lasting impression throughout. One need only view how Ali hangs his head, rubs his hands and uses piercing eye contact during a breakfast confession to Chiron as an indication of the man’s talent. Naomie Harris gives a similarly complex performance as Chiron’s drug-addict mother, getting at the personal and spiritual pain that such substance abuse entails.

Moonlight’s direction is exquisite, with Jenkins highlighting the everydayness of a young Chiron boiling water in a steel pot to be used for a bath, examining the tension an upbeat jukebox song can elicit, and showcasing the paternal intimacy of Juan teaching Chiron how to swim in the ocean. The film is consistently a joy to look at, even as Jenkins bares the economic dilapidation of Liberty City, proving that he’s a director worth following in the future.

“Moonlight” succeeds in communicating an often drowned-out piece of America and expertly explores an outsider’s search for connection in a hostile community. It’s one of the best films of 2016, won Best Picture at the Oscars and, with it officially released on digital streaming services, there’s no excuse to miss it.

Armin Haracic is a senior political science major. Contact Armin at haraciax@dukes.jmu.edu.