Roger Ebert, who I’m pretty sure would have loved Moonlight, had a recurring dictum: “A film is not about what it is about, but how it is about it.” Uncle Roger would probably have said the same about the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Moonlight, whose subject is an African-American man with three different names according to his level of growth. As a boy, he’s nicknamed Little; as a teenager he assumes his given name, Chiron; as an adult he takes the nickname Black, given to him by a school friend with whom he was once intimate. The movie, a second feature by writer-director Barry Jenkins, is structured as a triptych, with each portion named after whatever Chiron is called.
Plotwise, some of Moonlight feels familiar. The child Little, afraid of his crackhead mama (Naomie Harris), begins to spend more and more time staying with a couple who look after him: Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe). The twist is that Juan is a crack dealer who supplies Little’s mama. Eventually, as a man, Black goes into the same business, emulating the only male role model he ever knew. What’s different about Moonlight is the contemplative, painterly treatment that Jenkins gives the material. One could never fairly call the movie melodramatic; at times its energy is surprisingly low.
I was held, though, by the naturalistic performances and by Jenkins’ insistence on telling this story without flooding it with false emotion or incident. I imagine Juan could uncharitably be called “a crack dealer with a heart of gold,” but Mahershala Ali makes him a complex man capable of threat as well as kindness. When the sullen, almost wordless Little, tormented by bullies, asks Juan “What’s a faggot?”, he answers “It’s a word to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” The irony, in a movie loaded with ironies, is that Little’s schoolyard bullies may or may not be the ones calling him that, but his own mother does.
How Moonlight is about what it’s about is with as little dialogue as possible, and with well-judged use of color throughout (cinematographer James Laxton can take a bow). Things happen, major things, in between the three segments. We fill in the blanks of a portrait of sadness that’s not without hope. Nothing is made terribly explicit, nor is the movie particularly plot-centered. We follow Little as he becomes Chiron and then as he becomes Black; the changes in his character are presented as inevitable, unquestionable. Moonlight was shot fast, often on location in the same Miami projects where Jenkins grew up, yet it takes its time. It’s not so much a riff as a becalmed tone poem.
Jenkins’ handling of Chiron’s sexuality is as quietly oblique as everything else in the film. Chiron has a moment with childhood friend Kevin, but then is never intimate with anyone else until he meets Kevin again as an adult. Is he gay? Bisexual? Just looking for any meaningful male attention? The movie lets us grapple with the ambiguities. Jenkins trusts silence and inertia; he doesn’t move the camera needlessly — he also trusts composition and color. The achievement here is only possible in cinema, a story whose novelistic details are suggested by image and editing and what the filmmaker chooses to include and exclude. It is governed by a sure command of the medium that never insists on itself or bullies the audience. It’s a shame Ebert didn’t live to see it; he did, however, see Jenkins’ 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, which he awarded three and a half stars, and praised Jenkins’ “confidence to know the precise note he wants to strike.” I’d say Uncle Roger called it.