Between 1976 and 1983, the brilliant and tortured British film-maker Terence Davies made three harshly lyrical shorts – Children, Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration – which charted the life of a gay, guilt-ridden Catholic, who was Davies in all but name, from schoolyard to grave. The African-American writer-director Barry Jenkins, working from a story by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, doesn’t cover quite that much ground in his extraordinary film Moonlight, although this, too, is a triptych with a penchant for religious imagery. We get a swimming lesson that is also a baptism, a reunion toasted with red wine (the blood of Christ) in plastic beakers, and a Judas kiss followed by a Judas handjob.
The film traces in three parts (childhood, adolescence, adulthood) the maturing of Chiron, who grows up, as McCraney did, fatherless on the seamy, sun-frazzled streets of Miami. Fleeing the neighbourhood bullies, as well as his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), he finds a father figure in the shape of a drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali). The irony stings. Chiron can only get love from the man who is feeding and profiting from his mother’s habit. Good and bad in Moonlight are always getting jumbled up like that. When children are roughhousing on the sports field, the camera burrows into the fray, where it is tossed around like a sock in a spin-dryer until we can’t tell which limbs belong to which body. It’s no easier here to delineate moral choices.
Whatever else he might do, Juan provides comfort and guidance to the boy. Moonlight shows in meticulous detail how identity changes and develops, and it is Juan who signposts that process for Chiron. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you wanna be,” he says. People keep posing that question to one another. Meeting an old flame as an adult, Chiron is asked bluntly: “Who is you, man?” The question resonates throughout the film. “Am I a faggot?” the younger Chiron asks Juan. “You could be gay,” comes the reply, “but you can’t let nobody call you a faggot.”
What a person might be called is significant in Moonlight, where each of the three sections takes its title from a different name that Chiron is given. As the character grows up, the role is passed from the wary, wide-eyed Alex R Hibbert to Ashton Sanders, a guarded, bony-faced teenager, and then on to Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as a taciturn adult with a cobblestoned torso and grills on his teeth. Casting, direction and performance establish a continuity, so that each actor seems simply to have absorbed the previous one. Despite the film’s gangsta trappings (drugs, guns and gangs) the effect is more Boyhood than Boyz n the Hood.
That is the mystery and miracle of Moonlight. Material that should by rights be harrowing has become, in Jenkins’s hands, euphoric. This can be attributed partly to Nicholas Britell’s highly charged score and to the camera, which often floats woozily at an elevated angle, as though borne aloft by Chiron’s dreams rather than dragged down by his reality. Jenkins also favours a silent, slow-moving pan where the lens registers faces in a crowd one at a time, as though positioned in the middle of a group therapy session. Terence Davies used that in his own trilogy. Both directors learned it from Pasolini’s Accattone.
Jenkins happens also to be an imaginative choreographer of action. It was an inspired choice, for instance, to stage the film’s pivotal conversation at a diner where one of the participants is in the middle of his shift as a cook, thereby making interruptions an occupational hazard.
The most arresting visual component, though, is the use of colour by the cinematographer, James Laxton, who finds beauty in both the natural and the man-made; the sumptuous greens and yellows of Miami’s foliage and the synthetic palette of a station platform delight him equally. It’s not only how the colours sing, but the way in which they can be set against each other for dramatic effect. A cut from the orange glow of the night streets to the stark white hunting ground of the school canteen the next day is enough to set alarm bells ringing long before the police show up.
Colour is one of the film’s subjects as well as one of its assets: the title of McCraney’s original piece (which he has said was neither a play nor a screenplay) was In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, emphasising the idea that a person may be something other than appearance suggests. That applies also to the movie, which goes against the grain of its subject matter.
Like Pasolini and Davies before him, Jenkins is working in a tradition stretching back to Caravaggio, of coaxing out spirituality from the streets. He frames his actors like religious icons. Light streams through the colour around them to transform each close-up into a stained-glass window.
“Moonlight” is out on general release from 17 February
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times