Starring Alex Hibbert. Rated 14A
This splendid sophomore effort from writer-director Barry Jenkins is a tale of everyday African-Americans in which white people have no say. Well, someone is behind the fixed impoverishment of whole neighbourhoods facing the otherwise replenishing beaches of Miami, where most of this tripartite story about one young Florida man takes place.
Set in the 1980s, the first chapter of Moonlight is, like the others, named after the handle our main character currently goes by. A local don of much respect named Juan (House of Cards’ impressive Mahershala Ali) dubs him “Little” when he spots the spindly kid (Alex Hibbert) running away from schoolmates seemingly intent on beating him for being “different”.
Little has trouble with his too-young mother (Skyfall’s U.K.–based Naomie Harris), currently escaping into the new world of crack cocaine. The alternative home provided by Juan and his bohemian girlfriend (singer Janelle Monáe) provides something solid, even if this is compromised by the older man’s dubious profession.
Despite his macho swagger, Juan has the most apt answer to the boy’s anxious request to define faggot: “It’s a word people say to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” There’s a small sag when Ali leaves the building. But the next section features tightly wound Ashton Sanders as the teenage Little, now using his given name, Chiron. He’s also called “Black” by the light-skinned Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the only boy who shows real interest.
The movie could have survived without the overly familiar bullying subplot, although this does take Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) into a massively toughened-up present, complete with gold fronts and a Detroit ride just like Juan’s. Jenkins lets the scenes play out with organic ease, and cinematographer James Laxton physicalizes the locations with a kind of off-kilter poetry. Stereotypes are pushed aside here as men make their own ways through the minefield of masculinity in battleground America.