Moonlight

Barry Jenkins's new film about growing up black and gay is raw, sincere and game-changing

Barry Jenkins’s new film Moonlight is nothing short of revolutionary. Set in a poor black neighbourhood in 1980s Miami, it follows the young life of Chiron, a boy tormented by his classmates and his crack-addicted mother for his perceived effeminacy. When a kind drug dealer (Juan, played by Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Teresa, played by the singer Janelle Monáe) take him under their wing, Chiron first experiences real, unconditional love. When Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim, cradling him in his arms while the aquamarine waves rise around them, we witness a moment of tenderness that might be shared between a father and son. Chiron’s adopted family is itself a model of queer relationships, and a testament to Juan and Teresa’s upbringing, with its insistence that a community take care of its own. Each character is written and performed with an emotional complexity that is rare and intoxicating.

From its very first moments, Moonlight shatters a dozen racist clichés without fanfare: of the drug-dealing thug, of homophobia in the black community. It addresses the trauma of rejection not with a sappy score or melodramatic camerawork, but raw cuts and moments of grating silence. When Chiron is first called a faggot, we cannot hear the word: we only see his mother, high on crack, mouth it to him in a vicious rage. She backs up, dead-eyed, into the pink glow of her bedroom. The scene replays later, when Chiron is a teenager; the word haunts him wherever he goes. Like tissue around an emotional scar, pubescent Chiron shields himself with silence, either too scared or too mistrustful to open himself up to others. His fearfulness is painful to watch – the mark of someone who has never been loved as himself, but only a projection of what others want him to be.

There is only one scene of intimacy between Chiron and another boy in the film. It is not explicit; we see two shirts ruffled in the moonlight on a beach, and fingers digging into sand. It is not the sexual act that is important but Chiron’s anxiety; he knows this ecstasy cannot last. When they finish, he’s so uncomfortable with his own body – and so terrified that his desire will be met with the usual violence – that he apologizes. It’s a tender yet tragic moment that will be all too familiar to queer viewers. And later, his fear is justified: the boy returns Chiron’s affection with his fists.

The film has a number of turning points. No spoilers here; but it testifies to the way we condition young boys of all races today, in a hyper-masculine culture that exalts violence and represses genuine emotion. Certain parts of the film suggest (though they do not figure) the painful omnipresence of America’s bloated carceral system: a prison-industrial complex that snatches up young men of promise and hardens them for life.

There are no white people in the film. This is intentional. Moonlight is not a film about whiteness; nor is it a film about blackness per se. It is a film about masculinity, about loneliness, and most of all about love – love that does not play by the usual rules, but that nurtures and sustains us against the bitterest odds.

Evan Moffitt is assistant editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. 

Most Read

Ahead of Berlin Gallery Weekend, a guide to what to see across the German capital
Ahead of Art Cologne this week, a guide to the best current shows in the city
A fresh dispute over the estate of Vivian Maier; Chris Ofili is made a CBE
Theaster Gates & The Black Monks of Mississippi’s latest project for IHME Festival, Helsinki
Barkley L. Hendricks has died; the Tate faces a lawsuit from its neighbours

From Egyptian surrealism to Parisian pissoirs: what to read this weekend
On the 2017 Jamaica Biennial and its attempts to confront the role of misogyny in Jamaican popular culture
Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s new film project, ‘Rheingold’, sends up the ethical superiority of art making versus...
Jason Rhoades, My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage..., 2004, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, The Estate of Jason Rhoades and David Zwirner; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen
Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles, USA
Ahead of Art Brussels opening this week, a guide to the best shows around town
Recently awarded a USA Artist Fellowship, Lynn Hershman Leeson speaks about cultural technologies, personal narratives...
Cosey Fanni Tutti talks to Paul Clinton about feminism, freedom and the politics of the personal
David Zwirner, New York
A guide to the best of the current and soon-to-open shows in London
The final part in a series of our editors’ initial impressions from documenta 14 Athens, Amy Sherlock on the fourth and...
A survey of more than 50 respondents from over 30 countries

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017

frieze magazine

April 2017