Moonlight: a tragedy unfolds in three grim acts

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


A leading contender heading into awards season, Moonlight is a solid character study that doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but comes close. There’s an elegance and otherworldliness to it that makes the film unique among those depicting the modern African-American experience.

The film chronicles the life of Chiron, a gay black man at three critical junctures: first, we meet him as a nine-year old. Considered a “soft” kid, the boy is picked on regularly by his classmates. Unable to find support at home, he finds a father figure in the local crack dealer (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards), who happens to count Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) among his customers.

Later, we see Chiron as a shy teenager, ashamed of his sexuality and still a frequent target of bullies. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of Kevin, a more outgoing classmate.

Unfortunately for Chiron, Kevin is wrestling with many of the same issues that are smothering him, and he isn’t strong enough to carry them both.

Finally, we meet Chiron as a grown-up. All the traumas and experiences of his childhood and adolescence have come together and shaped a man filled with self-loathing and reluctant to follow his sexuality. He has modeled himself after the single positive male influence in his life, but he’s empty inside.

All three vignettes are harrowing, yet Moonlight shouldn’t be considered a melodrama. Bad things don’t just happen to Chiron. This is a character with agency whose tragedy comes from his limited options. In the end, the film lacks the final emotional punch that could have made it memorable. The tidiness of the resolution (or the entire last third, for that matter) simplifies Chiron’s struggle to the point of making it implausible.

Regardless, Moonlight has tremendous value as a fearless dissection of a long-standing problem that continues to replicate itself. It would make a terrific double bill with Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (on Netflix), about a system rigged against young black men.