Moonlight is full of amazing silences, at times almost a silent movie. Until the last section, when it is so obvious what the characters are thinking that they might as well be shouting. As in the Billy Joel song they are sharing a drink they call loneliness but it’s better than drinking alone.
The first person we see in the film talks a bit but we learn far more from what we see of him and around him. He’s a drug dealer checking in with one of his boys on the street, looking after business. He drives a huge old car with an elaborate toy crown on the dashboard, parks with a stylish swerve of the hand, walks with a slight swagger across the street, one thumb in the back pocket of his trousers. He has armoured teeth and a black headscarf. He is what a certain person recently called a bad hombre, but genial with it, no stress. His name in the movie is Juan, he’s from Cuba but sounds entirely North American. His turf is part of Liberty City, Miami, a so-called black enclave in that area. In the film it’s not an enclave, it’s a world, and there are no white people in it.
The real silence begins, though, when we see a small boy on the run from some other kids who are bullying him. He manages to get into an empty house and lock the door behind him. His pursuers shout and bang on the walls, throw rocks, and then leave him to it. He sits in the house for a long time, finds an empty syringe on the floor. We haven’t met his mother yet, so we don’t know what this means to him. Then Juan arrives, takes down a piece of boarding and climbs in through the window. This must be one of his safe-houses. He’s surprised (and amused) to see the boy, and takes him home with him. The boy says nothing, either here or in the car, or when Juan’s girlfriend comes to chat with him. He won’t tell them his name or where he lives, and they put him up for the night. The next day he talks a little, tells them his name is Chiron and what his mother’s address is. They take him home.
Several critics have suggested that at this point we are waiting for things to go seriously wrong. Juan will abuse the child or sell him. That’s what bad dudes do. This is a horribly plausible scenario for real life, but I have to say the thought barely crossed my mind as I was watching the movie. It came and went before I could get interested in it. The reason has to do with Barry Jenkins’s direction of the way the characters behave with each other, and even more to do with Mahershala Ali’s performance as Juan, richly deserving of its Oscar nomination. He is too intrigued by the boy as he is, too entertained by him, to turn him into mere prey. It’s true that one cliché – all bad guys are all bad, there is no kindness in the world of crime – risks tumbling into another, that of the gangster with the heart of gold. Jenkins doesn’t entirely avoid this one, especially when Juan, who becomes Chiron’s surrogate father for a while, teaches him to swim in a series of fancy shots where the camera keeps dipping below the water. It is in this sequence when, as they sit on the beach, Juan tells Chiron the story that gives the film its title. He knew an old lady in Cuba who said that ‘in moonlight black boys look blue.’ These words form the name of the unperformed play the film is based on, written early in his career by Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney suggests the piece was always on the way to being a movie, even if not this one: ‘It was never a play. It was always scripted in a way that was about the visual life of it.’
The heart of gold cliché hovers only for a while and never does more than hover. The boy’s stark misery is too pure for any help to do more than scratch at its surface, and Juan is too aware of the irony that would bring the cliché crashing down if it were allowed any room. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Juan asks Chiron if his mother takes drugs. Chiron nods. A moment later Chiron asks: ‘Do you sell drugs?’ Juan bows his head and says yes. Chiron walks out.
The film has three acts – like a play in this respect. And three actors in the role of Chiron, since it shows him at different stages of his life: around 9 (Alex Hibbert), around 16 (Ashton Sanders), around 26 (Travante Rhodes). Each actor produces a different person – they don’t really look like each other – and has obviously been encouraged in this by Jenkins. The effect is strange but powerful. One life is being narrated, but three are being lived. And if three, why couldn’t the same plot accommodate many more, as it surely does?
Juan remains who he is, and doesn’t appear in the last act. Chiron’s mother is played by Naomie Harris, and appears in all three acts, getting more and more dependent on drugs and less able to attend to her son, and then in the end living in a rehab centre, where Chiron visits her. Harris is nominated for an Oscar too, and again we can see why: she puts gaiety and anger and helplessness together in remarkable ways.
The big scene in the movie involves Chiron in a double discovery: gay sex, affection, tenderness is possible; and the macho men in school will beat you up for being happy. Well, more than that. The macho men will force your friend, the boy you had the lyrical encounter with, to do the beating up, to hit you again and again. Chiron goes home, his face and body a wreck, but returns to school the next day a different character. He marches through the halls to stirring music in the soundtrack, a sort of moving icon of determination, and smashes a chair over the leader of the bullies. Chiron is carted off by the police, the act ends, and the next time we see him it’s ten or more years later.
The last act shows Chiron’s reunion with Kevin, the friend who was forced to beat him up, or didn’t have the courage not to. Kevin too is played by three different actors: Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland. Kevin is now a cook in a diner somewhere in Miami. Chiron is a drug dealer in Atlanta, and has become the mirror of Juan: black headscarf, big old car, toy crown on the dashboard; mean manner, but not unkind to his minions. The reason they are meeting is because Kevin heard an old song on the jukebox, thought of Chiron, and called him. And because Chiron is haunted by the schooltime mixture of tenderness and violence. As McCraney said in an interview: ‘What does it mean to wait for the touch of a person that also betrayed you?’ The men end up in bed together, with Chiron’s sleeping head resting on Kevin’s shoulder. We get the kindness and the insufficiency of the situation. Kevin isn’t gay. He was just willing, in the old days, to help Chiron find his own feelings, and now, to be nice to him. When Chiron says to Kevin, ‘You are the only man who ever touched me,’ we are meant to hear all the meanings of the words at once.
What’s wrong with this scene is that we have already figured out Chiron’s unfulfillable need, and there are still ten minutes of late Ingmar Bergman to go. The film keeps showing us Chiron’s handsome, inscrutable face. The silence doesn’t tell us anything, it just asks us to feel sorry for him, and for most of its duration the film has been doing something less patronising than that. All is not lost, though, because as we gaze at Chiron, we can think of something else: his resemblance to Juan. Does it mean that Juan was once a Chiron, or that all stylish drug dealers, like happy families, are alike? Not quite that perhaps, but the last shot of the film is of the young Chiron sitting on the beach, his back towards us, looking out at the ocean. He sees the moon, and then he turns his head. His wide eyes suggest all the desolation and promise that Juan saw in him at the beginning. If we started again, would things be different?