Even before its mainstream cinematic release, director Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight is being hailed by critics as one of the best films of the year.
The coming-of-age plot is quite unlike most other Hollywood stories, grappling with what it means to grow up black and gay against the backdrop of the 1980s crack epidemic in Miami. Jenkins’s script is largely based off the stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who, like Jenkins, grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, raised by mothers who struggled with drug addictions.
Moonlight tells the story of one man in three stages: the first, “Little,” follows a child nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert) as he seeks refuge from his bullies and his mother (Naomie Harris), by finding comfort in the friendship of an older drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). In stage two, Little now goes by his birth name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a moody teen who tries to work out his feelings for his best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). In stage three, the adult Chiron is known as Black (Trevante Rhodes), himself a hardened drug dealer much like Juan.
“An outline can’t convey the provocative depth of Jenkins’s screenplay, challenging black masculinity comparable to what Brokeback Mountain did for white machismo,” writes Steve Persall, film critic for the Tampa Bay Times. “Moonlight is a different shock to the system, chipping away at a cultural monolith Hollywood erected.”
Although alcohol remains the number-one drug problem in the U.S., Moonlight depicts the vicious cycle of drugs and poverty that consumed many urban areas during the crack epidemic. It also contrasts the deep socioeconomic divide of a state like Florida, where there are 1,300 golf courses but more than three million people living in poverty today.
“The structure of Moonlight shows that human beings are complex characters who are changed by the people, places and things in their lives,” writes Rick Bentley for the Fresno Bee. “Getting to watch the transformation is as compelling as it is chilling.”
Since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, critics have heaped praise on Moonlight for its storyline, its cinematography, and perhaps most of all, its dramatic performances from the ensemble cast.
“Despite this story’s harshness, Jenkins weaves a beautiful film, confident, even poetic in its understatement,” says Persall. “…Moonlight is a modest masterpiece, and quite possibly the best film of 2016.”