BFI LFF 2016: MOONLIGHT (2016)

Moonlight is a very different gay coming-of-age movie by Barry Jenkins and it will break your heart.

Black and Blue

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The film’s three parts follow the boyhood, adolescence and maturity of young African-American Chiron, growing up in Miami. Nicknamed Little because he’s so skinny, played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, he’s bullied by his classmates, who sense something different about him, and he lives with crackhead mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who veers erratically between defensiveness and neglect.

He finds an unlikely bolt hole from his tormentors and dysfunctional home life with compassionate local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards), who’s in fact the person responsible for Paula’s addiction, and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). But where you might expect this to lead Juan to influence Little into his drug-dealing world, instead he tries to help the boy by widening his horizons, taking him to the beach and teaching him to swim. There’s a moving scene where he answer’s Little’s questions about their two lives with an honesty that is so unexpected that it takes your breath away.

As an adolescent living in a violently dysfunctional home as his mother deteriorates, shy Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has learnt to keep his distance from his bullying high school classmates. Kevin, his only friend (played by Jaden Piner as a boy and Jharrel Jerome as a teenager), is the only person to reach out to him and they share a rapport and a sexual awakening at night on a deserted beach which neither of them acknowledges openingly. Ultimately, the bullying of Chiron ends a malevolent set-up fight and violent tragedy.

And finally, as a young man, now calling himself Black, the nickname Kevin gave him, Chiron (as an adult, former athlete Trevante Rhodes) has learnt to cover up any signs of weakness and deny to himself who he really is. Now living alone in Alabama, he’s bulked himself up with muscle, is outwardly macho, and dresses in the bling of the drug dealer he has become. Then, after many years separation, out of the blue Kevin gets in touch. Their subsequent meeting is an electric evening of sexual tension as Black is drawn to the only tenderness he has ever known.

Moonlight is a very moving exploration of what it feels like to grow up having to hide your true nature. Director Barry Jenkins shows the loneliness and isolation of coming to adulthood as a gay man in a macho culture where being gay is seen as a weakness. All the performances throughout are true and quietly heart-rending. The film is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney.


Moonlight screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 6, 7 and 8 October 2016 and was the winner of the Best International Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards on 4 December 2016.


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