MOONLIGHT is a movie about what it’s like to grow up male in America. Moonlight is also a movie about what it’s like to grow up gay in America. And Moonlight is, in addition, a movie about what it’s like to grow up Black in America.
That inevitably makes Barry Jenkins’ justly acclaimed film sound like it will appeal primarily to gay, Black, and/or male audiences. And indeed, people who share some or all of its protagonist’s characteristics will be overjoyed at the belated depiction of lives like theirs on screen. But Moonlight, if I can swoon for a moment, does what all true art aspires to do. It shares something unique but universal about what it’s like to be human. It belongs to that hoariest of genres, the coming-of-age story. Specifically, it’s about Chiron, who we first meet as a boy (Alex Hibbert) being raised by his crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) in Miami. Her dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes the scrawny Chiron—his nickname is “Little”—under his wing, even as he continues selling Paula drugs.
We dip back into Chiron’s life two more times, once when he’s a teen (Ashton Sanders) starting to come to terms with his sexuality, and later as a young man (Trevante Rhodes) reuniting with an old friend in a diner booth conversation that’s impeccably scripted and acted. But a mundane description of Moonlight’s plot doesn’t begin to capture the finely tuned craft and visual poetry that went into its creation.
Even in today’s relatively tolerant cultural marketplace, Moonlight’s Black, gay protagonist (as well as the fact that it features no car chases, robots, or boobs) will probably limit its box-office reach. Here’s hoping, though, that this might be the rare case where a film like this finds the broad audience it deserves.