It’s been eight years since the release of Jenkins’s debut feature Medicine For Melancholy, itself a clever work about identity. That film followed a black couple wandering the streets of San Francisco after a one-night stand, pondering the gentrifying city and whether people of color could still find a place in it. Moonlight feels more personal for Jenkins, who was born and raised in Liberty City, Miami, the predominantly African American neighborhood in which the film is set. He’s stated that Chiron’s story is not his own, but the film has an incredible sense of place all the same. The movie begins with a casual conversation between two drug dealers on an abandoned block, then cuts to a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a boy taunted with the nickname “Little,” who’s hiding out from bullies in an empty, boarded-up apartment building.
Moonlight veers away from the gritty stereotypes its setting might suggest; in fact, this film deliberately rejects the visual markers viewers might anticipate in such a tale. Liberty City is bright and often colorful, even at its most dilapidated. When Chiron is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), one of the drug dealers shown cruising around in a vintage Cadillac, the boy is taken to Juan’s suburban-ish home, and later to the beach, where Juan cradles him in the water to try and teach him how to swim. Juan quickly realizes that Chiron doesn’t need to be forced or coddled into opening up emotionally—he just needs space to be himself. At every juncture, Juan tries to dissuade the boy from accepting whatever lot he’s handed by his tormenters, or by his crack-addicted mother Paula (a frightening, and wonderful, Naomie Harris).
Ali’s incredible performance in Moonlight’s first third gives it its human core; Jenkins has no interest in upending, or affirming, the audience’s preconceived notions of how a drug dealer might behave. Juan is presented as an entire person because that’s exactly who he is—everyone in this movie is presented in the same three-dimensional fashion, even as they make decisions that break Chiron’s heart. More than anything, Juan tries to impress upon the boy that his outward appearance, and how the world sees him, isn’t everything. During his swimming lesson, Juan relays a memory of an old woman seeing him on the beach at night and saying, “In the moonlight, black boys look blue! You’re blue!”
In some of the film’s most important moments, Jenkins literally bathes his characters in that baleful, blue light, stripping them of whatever disguises they might unwittingly wear in the daytime. As a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders), Chiron is still awkward, still burdened by his mother, and perhaps only slightly more aware of his sexuality. When a nighttime flirtation with a friend turns sexual, Jenkins stages the action on a beach under the full moon, turning that intimate moment into something that feels at once exclusive to the couple and yet utterly universal.