“Moonlight”, in its three chapters, Little, Chiron and Black, takes viewers through the lense of Chiron (portrayed by Alex Hibbert), a shy and withdrawn child from the Miami’s dangerous Liberty City area, dubbed “Little” for his meek personality and size. The film encapsulates Chiron’s struggles with growing up in the slums of Miami, being exposed to the drug trade, and his encounters with the suffocating masculinity within the black community.
The feature film release is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”. The movie opens with Chiron being chased into an abandoned motel by a group of larger boys yelling homophobic epithets. He is later discovered by Juan (portrayed by Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer, who brings Chiron to his home where he meets Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (portrayed by Janelle Monáe). After being fed dinner and allowed to spend the night, Chiron begins to open up to them.
It is seen the following day, that Chiron found solace in the couple from difficulties with his own mother at home. Chiron’s mother, Paula (portrayed by Naomie Harris) is controlling and emotionally abusive. These qualities are put on display when, instead of being overjoyed her son, whom she hasn’t seen in roughly twenty-four hours, has been safely returned to her, Paula opts to ground Chiron for not coming home the day before.
The film also examines same-sex friendships and relationships among black youth through Chiron’s relationship with his best friend, Kevin (portrayed by Jaden Piner), who he grows more attached to. Chiron and Juan also continue spending more time with one another, the latter teaching Chiron how to swim while advising him to make his own path in life and literally and figuratively keep his head above water. Juan is obviously meant to serve as a father figure to Chiron and his and Teresa’s home becomes a haven for him.
By Chapter Two, Chiron is nearly a man (now being portrayed by Ashton Sanders). He is still tirelessly bullied, harassed and openly threatened by one of his classmates, Terrel, though remaining close friends with Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome). What’s interesting about the way that this builds romance, while reaming a coming of age story, about queer black youth is handled is just how little window dressing that there is. Everything shown within the films has a purpose somewhere in the film’s one hundred and ten minute run time.
In an interview with the Dinner Party Download podcast series, Barry Jenkins explains the decision of casting Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron as difficult, but necessary. Rhodes is a former athlete who Jenkins said gives off a very hard, masculine vibe, until eventually in some way you see his more sensitive inner workings. Jenkins said that he wanted the viewers to feel the same experience when they saw adult Chiron in Chapter Three, to see there are still remnants of the kid from Chapter One.
The film also does something interesting with the skin tones of many character portrayals, as many of the actors brought in are fairly darker skinned, a feat not often seen in major films. Barry Jenkins said he made sure that this happened to more accurately represent he and his close friend Tarell McCraney’s upbringing in the Liberty City projects. Another factor that played into this decision was to creatively use the film’s lighting to make the darker skin tones stand out more and glow to draw attention to the black body present. He almost decided to leave out Paula’s character all together, due to just how negative she shows herself to be, but Jenkins decided it wouldn’t be truthful to the screenplay McCraney had written and to their childhoods, in which they were raised by drug-addicted mothers.
Another interesting choice made by Jenkins and the film’s producer was not to portray lower class living as having an overbearing amount of grit. This is an applaudable decision, because far too often movies that focused on people of a lower socioeconomic class normalize the characters struggles by constantly showing how tough they are. “Moonlight” is a departure from this because when something negative or stunting happens to Chiron, we see him sulk, cry and be distraught. This film does an amazing job showing the realistic struggles of queer youth of color, growing up in a world tries desperately to tell them who to be.