With Unassuming Elegance, ‘Moonlight’ Fills a Demographic Void

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There is a famous scene in a documentary about the Miami-Dade jail system in which the interviewer asks a prisoner why he would extort a weaker inmate. The prisoner’s response to this is simple: The name of the game is “GABOS” (“game ain’t based on sympathy”). Since then, the coined term has become increasingly popular within Miami prison culture, especially among inmates who believe that “toughness” is synonymous with “survival.”

Moonlight, which was released by the independent film studio A24 (The Lobster, Green Room), is not a prison movie. Yet these same issues of masculinity and strength permeate the film and, more specifically, the life of Chiron, a young black boy living in south-central Miami. In Moonlight, we watch him grow up, his narrative unraveling as he grapples with confusion, sadness and even his sexuality. Chiron takes in his surroundings with wary eyes and little to say, and Moonlight, with its patience and poise, provides the perfect vessel for his despondency.

Chiron is first introduced as a little boy called Little (Alex Hibbert). He runs through the streets of his poor neighborhood as his schoolmates chase him laughing. Little is detached; he never opens up, and when he does, it is with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a middle-aged local drug dealer with eyes full of apprehension and lingering regrets. With his hulking muscular figure and his sly smile, Juan is a physical embodiment of what it means to be a tough black man. He ends up assuming a father-figure type of role, perhaps because he sees a little bit of himself in Chiron. Juan teaches him to swim in the ocean and lets him stay in his home whenever his mother slips into an irritable haze of drug addiction.

Moonlight is only the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins, yet he navigates its difficult and delicate topics with the skill of an experienced veteran. He is careful not to over glorify his characters, and he never allows them to succumb to hyperbolic black stereotypes the way so many films have before it. The script is not bloated with melodrama nor is it riddled with an overabundance of fight scenes. Rather, Jenkins shows command over monotony—a lonely moment in a bathtub, the tenderness between mother and son, the relaxed moments of camaraderie shared among friends. These scenes pass the way they would in real life: in abrupt lurches and dragging lulls. So few films are as patient or observant.

Chiron glimpses a few moments of happiness throughout his teenage years, particularly an occasion on the beach in which he and his classmate share an intimate moment. However, this illusion of contentment is quickly shattered when he is attacked at school. He moves to Atlanta and becomes a drug dealer himself. He wears gold grills and a do-rag as though they were armor and a shield. He becomes hard and jaded. It isn’t that surprising.

The game ain’t based on sympathy.

Alongside this moving story is a musical score from award-winning composer Nicholas Britell. His incessant piano tempo and visceral fluidity blend together to create a whirlwind of nervous sound. It is both harrowing and humbling, creating the perfect soundtrack for Chiron’s complicated landscape.

How tough do you need to be? Is emotion a weakness? Where do the lines blur, and when does it become a betrayal of self? How many more boys grow up fatherless, their hopes and dreams dwarfed by their unforgiving circumstances? Moonlight poses these difficult questions but never offers any conclusive solutions. These vague intentions are part of what makes Moonlight special. It is a film meant to be absorbed, mulled over and, later on after the credits roll, thoughtfully considered.

Rating: 10/10