In a recent issue of The New Yorker, critic Emily Nussbaum, writing about the TV show Atlanta, observed, "Black masculinity is a set of poses that everyone imitates, including black men." Barry Jenkins' lyrical, sensual drama Moonlight, the best American film I've seen this year, plays a bit like the embodiment of that idea, or like a bell hooks treatise on the patriarchy transformed into drama. And yet it as far removed from a thesis film as can be. No, its acting and writing are far too natural and alive for that. This is a work of art, and a great one. Three chapters trace the identity formation of a shy, gay male at ages nine, 16 and 26, growing up bullied amidst Miami's deadly drug economy. Male tenderness is a casualty of the burden of maintaining the masculine front. Jenkins based his screenplay upon Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and the movie's palette, as rendered by cinematographer James Laxton, is as evocative of the beauty of bodies and nature as that title.
There is a moment in the first chapter, entitled "Little," when the awkward nine-year-old boy (Alex Hibbert), whose real name is Chiron but whom everyone calls by that titular sobriquet, asks a man what the word "faggot" means. The man, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood kingpin, a drug dealer who found the abused, neglected Little in one of his "dope holes," taking refuge from bullies. (Little's friend Kevin occasionally tries to toughen him up by teaching him to fight, but it never takes). We might expect we know how he will respond: a faggot is a weak man, a punk. Instead, he carefully explains that "faggot" is a word used to make gay people feel bad. When the boy then asks him if he sells drugs, Juan hesitates. He doesn't want to let Little down--he's become his father figure (just as, as the film progresses, his kind girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe, becomes a mother of sorts). Finally, he answers honestly, and Ali makes us feel Juan's shame. We get the sense that while "drug dealer" is the role he ended up playing, it's not "him." Never once does he teach Little to be strong and violent. Quite the opposite: he drops the "hard" mask and shows him vulnerability and love.
Little's actual mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is addicted to the very crack Juan sells. This role--the crack-addicted mother--could have been a cliché. However, as with every character in the film, Paula is granted her full humanity. In Harris' hands, she is a woman with an illness. During a confrontation with Juan in the street while high, she rhetorically asks him to guess why they bully Little, executing a mocking, limp-wristed caricature of her own prepubescent son. It's scary, heartless. She's got the devil in her eyes. From Little's point of view, she sometimes appears as something out of a horror movie.
In the second chapter, "Chiron," it is seven years later, and the skinny 16-year-old is played with haunted eyes by Chicago's own Ashton Sanders. Juan is dead, we learn. Chiron is still bullied, particularly ruthlessly by one tormentor. Paula has gotten worse. Stumbling towards him one morning, she looks like a zombie, and we'd be surprised if she lived another day.
Kevin is played as a teenager by Jharrel Jerome in a very funny performance, spewing out a rap about his sexual conquests that's so over-the-top and sexist that you just about know he's overcompensating for something. He's always calling Chiron "Black," a nickname the latter doesn't much like. On the beach, they blaze a "J" and talk about how good it feels when a breeze from the water blows through the hood. In a moment that surprises both of them, Kevin, the big-talking ladykiller, gives Chiron his first sexual experience. Afterwards, there's no shame, no regrets. We see a spark of hope in Chiron's eyes. Unfortunately, his chief tormentor at school divines their secret. This ringleader orders Kevin to declare his allegiance--sexually, politically--by beating up Chiron in the schoolyard. In a humiliating, heartbreaking scene, Kevin repeatedly hits an unresisting Chiron, as hands that gave private pleasure inflict public pain. Gentle Chiron keeps getting back up ("stay down," Kevin implores). Later, in a fateful tracking shot, we follow Chiron as he stalks the school corridor, on his way to performing the act that will end this chapter of his life: barging into a classroom and sucker-smashing a chair over the ringleader's back.
In the movie's third act, "Black," Chiron is not little anymore. He's 26, and even his muscles have muscles. The boy has grown up to be a drug boss with a gold grille. Calling himself "Black," adopting Kevin's once-shunned nickname, he's finally performing the pose of masculinity. At first we don't even recognize him. Then the actor, Trevante Rhodes, does something remarkable: he makes you see the scared, scarred, quiet boy in this big, ripped man. In a moving scene, he visits Paula in a rehab clinic. Her demons finally seem quiet.
Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland), calls to offer a meandering apology for what happened 10 years before. He's a cook now, he says. Later, Black gets in his car and drives all night to surprise Kevin at the diner. These final scenes, in which Kevin feeds Black and then takes him back to his home, are so alive with risk, laughter, relief, and regret, that I can only describe them as being touched by grace. Kevin, we see, is now a truly happy man, having dropped the front himself years ago. He's deeply content with his modest, workaday life. He's survived some rough patches. He calls Black out on the whole pose he's affected, and, while Black says very little--he was always shy--we can see him thinking, imagining. In the quiet way he regards Kevin, his eyes speak volumes, and what they say is this: I loved you, even though you hurt me. And: this isn't me. It was never me. Our gentle Little is still there. He's just buried beneath layers of hurt.