Moonlight, the long-awaited second feature from American director Barry Jenkins, is an adaptation of a play-cum-memoir by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film has already been playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre in Toronto, but on November 18, the auditorium was full. Perhaps it’s to be expected—after all, it was 6 o’clock on a Friday—but the crowd likely amassed due to the special nature of this particular screening: Following the film, Jenkins was slated to answer questions from the audience via Skype. Already a hit with critics from its time spent on the festival circuit— the film first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in early September and then made its way to the Toronto International Film Festival shortly afterwards—it was clear from the throngs of people gathered at the theatre, Moonlight has gained early traction with moviegoers as well; as the opening scene flickers to life, it becomes easy to see why.
The story is divided into three chapters, each providing a glimpse into the life of a young black man named Chiron who is growing up in a crime-ridden neighbourhood of Miami. Chiron is played at different ages by three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). He is bullied at school and often left to his own devices by his drug-addicted mother, played with gut-wrenching honesty by Naomie Harris of Skyfall and Spectre. He finds himself drawn to a benevolent drug dealer played by Mahershala Ali, of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Chiron grapples with his sexuality during tender exchanges of affection with his best and only friend Kevin, also played by three separate actors. Ultimately, he is torn between embodying everyone’s expectations of him and becoming the person he desperately yearns to be.
The film is gorgeously shot and masterfully scored, taking care not to rush with its depictions of Chiron’s warring selves. From boyhood to adolescence and adulthood, Chiron is dramatically transformed in innumerable, irreparable ways, and yet remarkably, a sense of hope–always simmering beneath the surface–is never lost. Fittingly, the movie ends on an ambiguous note, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if Chiron is fated to become a casualty of his environment.
For Jenkins, although the film was challenging to make, it was more “manifest destiny” than anything else.
“I grew up in the neighbourhood that you see depicted in this film […], it seemed like this massive place growing up […], it was our whole world, you know, in a certain way,” Jenkins fondly explained. “Despite the limitations, there was so much possibility of experience and expression there.”
When an audience member inquired about the public reactions to Moonlight, especially in the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, Jenkins became resolute.
“I’m not so much worried about the backlash,” he said after a slight pause. “I got a message today. I was tagged alongside Lee Daniels…about my attempt at the ‘faggotization’ of America. I’m used to it at this point and the only thing I think of is […], I don’t walk down the street holding my partner’s hand, I can’t imagine the horror and the aggression people who identify as LGBTQ just living their lives, how much they endure every day. So I can shoulder whatever backlash I get.”
In an America full of citizens made recently more aware of the state of their identities, Moonlight will resonate deeply with audiences.