Moonlight – Review

Worth seeing: as an episodic examination of attitudes towards homosexuality among Florida's black drug dealing communities
Director:Barry Jenkins
Featuring:Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Jaden Piner, Janelle Monáe, Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Shariff Earp
Length:111 minutes
Released:10th February 2017, a week later outside London


When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), he’s a reserved young boy, being chased by his class-mates through a crack-den in a run-down part of Miami. But he’s not just running away from them – he’s also running away from his everyday life – a crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and her useless boyfriend.

He’s pulled from his hiding place by the local drug kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him under his wing and becomes a gently supportive father-figure to him through his formative years, even when – from an early age – he starts to question his sexuality.

We next meet Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as a lonely high-school student, generally keeping himself to himself, rather than making any effort to try to fit in. His mother is still a crack-addict and he still seeks his moral guidance elsewhere. But it’s during his teenage years that he has the confidence to explore his feelings for men, when a fellow student (Jharrel Jerome) shows an interest. But the school bullies don’t take kindly to finding that one of their class-mates is gay.

By the next time we meet Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), the shy and unassuming gay teenager has changed beyond recognition. He’s served time, bulked up, left town and is now running his own business, not too dissimilar to the one he first saw through his childhood mentor Juan. But it’s another figure from his past (André Holland) whose ghost has an even more haunting effect on his present.


Moonlight is billed as the coming-of-age story of a young, black, gay man in Miami. All of that is true, but the episodic way in which it is told, dipping into three brief periods of his life, makes for a disjointed examination of – well – it’s never quite clear what.

It’s obviously not trying to say that this is the typical life faced by young, black, gay men in Miami – since most will not have crack-addicted mothers, be taught genuine morals by a kindly drugs boss who knows how to live a righteous life even if he chooses not to do so, briefly explore his sexuality before following the stereotypical path of the disenfranchised black man into the murky underworld, where he climbs the criminal ladder, without letting go of that hidden longing for intimacy with another man.

It’s probably also not saying that it’s harder to grow up gay and black than it would be gay and white, since the ruthless gang leader who mentors him when he first questions his sexuality seems to be ahead of his time in being perfectly accepting of whatever route he chooses. And being set exclusively within a minority ethnic context, Moonlight isn’t passing on comment on whether white boys would find coming out any easier.

So while it presents as an issues-based film, it’s better evaluated reduced to an individual’s own journey, and as such, there’s not particularly a message to be learnt by others, unless it’s that in a world that is now much more accepting of homosexuality, it’s about time that the criminal underworld caught up with more liberal areas of the society, such as show business or the hospitality industry. But even this doesn’t quite hold up, since Juan was accepting of Chiron as a boy, but when Chiron finds himself in charge as an adult, he feels that he has to hide it.

Moonlight works far better as three individual short films, examining different aspects of the struggles faced by outsiders in their community, but taken as a whole, there seems to be little continuity of character from one segment to the next – particularly from his teenage years to his early adulthood.

With the intervening years being revealed through clumsy exposition, it feels like you’re watching a film about a completely different individual. The idea that the meek and mild teenager should have blossomed into a drugs boss himself is hard to accept, without having witnessed his journey. While his later life, in this sense, mirrored that of his childhood mentor, there was nothing in the earlier segments to suggest that this would be a path he might follow himself. And if the film is trying to suggest that, in fact, he had no other choice, that doesn’t ring true, because not every young, black, gay man ends up being the much-feared boss of a drugs gang.

Mahershala Ali’s confident, complex and empowering turn as the sympathetic gang leader has deservedly earned him awards success – but this uncharacteristic warmth is in support of a reserved young boy whose inability to relate to other people is understandable but makes him a tough character for audiences to identify with or root for. Nevertheless, for Ali’s performance alone, this episode makes for an effective drama that sets up what is to come.

The second episode – the sexual awakening and its consequences – is laced with pathos and is largely consistent with what we’ve already seen. But it’s also consistent with other films we’ve seen about repressed young gay men blossoming after allowing their sexuality to breathe, before having to face up to the prejudices of others.

The final chapter in Chiron’s trilogy is the least successful, feeling disconnected in tone from the rest of the film and offering little to the debate of the issues it brings up. It’s a profound story of love lost – and perhaps found again. But it doesn’t particularly sit comfortably after the previous two segments.

Few would challenge Ali’s Oscar nomination, but whether in any other year than immediately after the Oscars So White controversy this would have been elevated from an LGBT art-house film to an all-round Oscar-contender is open to question.

It’s also interesting that like another of this week’s releases, Fences, Moonlight’s formal theatrical release is scheduled for 17th February, but it’s being “previewed” in London a week earlier, in order to be eligible for this weekend’s BAFTAs. The BAFTA rules state that “films are eligible if they have been theatrically exhibited publicly to a paying audience on at least ten commercial screens in the UK for at least seven days in aggregate (not including festival screenings)” before the ceremony. These films don’t meet all the criteria, but it turns out that BAFTA’s Film Committee interprets “have been theatrically exhibited…for at least seven days” as “have been theatrically exhibited before the ceremony and will eventually – after the ceremony – have been on release for at least seven days.”

Having tweaked its own rules to encourage diversity in British film-making only two months ago, it might have been embarrassing if two of the most high-profile black films in Oscar contention had been ruled ineligible in the other major categories until next year. But having pointed out the discrepancy in the wording of their rules and the way in which they have been interpreted, it will be interesting to see whether next year’s guidelines are tweaked accordingly.