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Moonlight: A Light Called Human Life (review)

“In the moonlight which is always sad, as the light of the sun itself is–as the light called human life is–at its coming and its going.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Where do we find the poetry of our lives when we go looking for it? Is it in the scars we carry from the violence we couldn’t avoid? Is it in the connections we’ve made with people who changed us? Is it in our eyes looking back at us from the mirror when we see what we’ve become while trying to honor who we were? Turning our lives into poetry from the most unbearable words shouted at us to damage what we need to grow — that kind of poetry is what filmmaker Barry Jenkins has created with his exquisite ode to his own coming of age, Moonlight.

Told in three parts, with three different actors representing milestone moments in the life of a man who calls himself “Black.” Moonlight is the coming of age story of a young black man, and it’s the coming out story of a young black gay man growing up in a culture that forbids it, mostly.

The first act is told through the eyes of a boy called “Little,” played beautifully by Alex R. Hibbert. Growing up in the projects with a single mother who becomes addicted to crack, Little is bullied at school repeatedly, so much that he’s afraid to even go home. Eventually he finds a father figure (Mahershala Ali) who guides young Little by giving him a safe place to land with his girlfriend Teresa (the wonderful Janelle Monáe). Awash in the shame of being different from his rough and tumble classmates, Little first encounters Kevin. Kevin teaches him how to be tough and fight back.

In the second act, Little has now become “Black” because that’s the nickname Kevin has given him. Black is again taunted by his classmates for being “different,” though Black hasn’t quite figured out how different he is, or even where he belongs. His mother is in the throes of her relentless addiction and the only refuge Black can find is with Teresa, who gives him a place to sleep, money and food. This is a life struggle every day for Black. He crosses paths with Kevin again but this time Kevin introduces him to glimpses of his sexual identity.

After a brutal high school fight, Black finally decides to become as tough as anyone else on the streets — to macho up or become “hard.” This seems the only way he can protect himself and establish any kind of power. He’s locked in, or as he says, “trapped.” Then once again, Kevin enters his life now that they’re both adults. It’s clear that they have a deeper relationship than either of them ever realized, even if they still have to carefully avoid any kind of true confession. This is a love story but not a traditional one. These two men clearly love each other, but Kevin’s gift to Black isn’t a romantic relationship. Kevin is one of many people in Black’s life who help him discover who he is and why he feels the way he does, while outwardly pretending to be someone else.

Moonlight is told through dreamy portraits of its characters. Sometimes we see only their faces staring back at us, inviting us, daring us, seducing us. Each of the three actors who represent Black are magnificent. Jenkins was careful to cast three males with similar eyes so that no matter what else about them changes as they grow older, their gaze remains the same.

Jenkins plays with moonlight itself — on a sandy beach, with black skin bathed in its light. A woman in Cuba tells Juan who then tells Little: moonlight makes black men look blue. “So your name is Blue?” he asks. No, Juan tells him. An ephemeral color hidden beneath the color everyone else sees is such a beautiful metaphor for Black’s sexuality, just as his nickname, “Black” is meant as the literal representation of skin color and identity. But the blue revealed in moonlight suggests another elusive layer emerging, not so much an illusion as it is another plane of reality.

As sad as Moonlight is, as hard as it is to watch this man suffer first in trying to grow up with the odds stacked against him, and then to watch him suffer pretending to be someone he isn’t — it is also breathtaking in its beauty.

Moonlight is for the black boys who grow up into men, and it’s for the gay boys who grow up getting beaten for it. It’s for those who can’t find who they are until someone has the courage to show it to them. Moonlight is for those of us who are lost and can’t find words to relieve our pain until art shows us how. Moonlight is for lovers who must learn to speak a different language than the one culture hands to them, because their identity demands it. Moonlight is for the lost boys, the outsiders, the runaways. It is a movie made by someone whose story became poetry, and now the poetry will forever become part of the ongoing conversation of what it means to black, what it means to be gay, and what it means to be both in a brutal divided America.

Moonlight is reminder that we are born who we are and nothing can ever beat that out of us. We’re lucky if we can find the right people who hold us close when we’re falling apart and offer safe haven when we’re alone.

Moonlight is a masterpiece.