When viewers first meet Chiron, he is like a bird with a broken wing. The nine-year-old, played by Alex R. Hibbert, is taking refuge from the bullies that will terrorize him his entire young life in an abandoned, boarded up house. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug-dealer who happens to sell to his crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), finds the young boy and attempts to nurse his wounds. Juan takes him to a fast food chain where Chiron, derisively called “Little” by his classmates, barely looks up from the table, refusing to make eye contact.
Moonlight, the best American movie of the year, is about the power of the gaze. Its trio of performances reflect the film’s commitment to looking, a meditation on what it means to deny oneself of a connection with others in fear of what you might see if you peered too closely.
Barry Jenkins, who previously directed the 2008 Sundance hit Medicine for Melancholy, waited five years before adapting his next feature, inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. As McCraney has claimed, the original work is less a play than a piece of experimental theater in which the audience watches three stories unfold at once. (A cinematic equivalent would be Mike Figgis’ Timecode, where four stories simultaneously occupy separate quadrants of the screen, the narratives arranged like the squares of a Microsoft Windows logo.) Later it’s revealed that these threads intersect, telling the story of a single life captured at three distinct periods.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood traverses time by speeding up its processes, showing its protagonist as he slowly matures and evolves over a period of 12 years. Because Moonlight jumps in time, Jenkins knew that casting would be key. At first, the director wanted three actors who bore a striking physical resemblance, but he told Rolling Stone that he focused on one particular trait instead: the eyes. “I kept thinking that if I found actors who had the same kind of eyes, enough that when you saw the older actor, you could see the kid from the first part in there,” Jenkins said, “I knew that we could make it work.”
The director made this decision after reading Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye, a 2005 guide to film editing. Murch stresses a non-technical approach to filmic montage. His theory on editing, “The Rule of Six,” states that a good editor must “advance the story,” but first and foremost, all editing must remain “true to the emotion of the moment.”
The choice to stress so much of the film on his actors’ eyes was certainly unconventional, but it’s where Moonlight derives its singular emotional impact. Chiron’s gaze says a great deal about this young man and how he learns to close himself off from the world around him. When Juan begins spending more time with Chiron, who brings out the man’s deep capacity for loving tenderness, Paula confronts him. Does Juan know why the other boys pick on Chiron in school? Chiron is only beginning to understand the true source of his profound fear, why he looks at the ground instead of other boys. At dinner, he asks Juan what a “faggot” is and what it means if he is one.
Juan explains the word is something people says “when they want to make gay people feel bad.” The man who comes to be a surrogate father to Chiron says that the boy doesn’t need to know whether he’s gay right now. He will come to his own conclusions on the subject when he is ready. Ali’s unbending gaze during these pivotal moments radiates compassion, as well as the paternal glow of Gregory Peck.
The first time that Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) is touched by another man, the camera doesn’t show Sanders’ face. The scene, which takes place on the beaches of Miami under the radiant blue of the evening moon, is shot from behind him, viewing the back of his head at Chiron stumbles his way into his first sexual encounter. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a classmate at school, boasts of his torrid liaisons with female students in between periods, but his boasts are performative. The 16-year-old looks at Chiron in a way the other guys at school don’t—with an unmistakable sense of recognition. Jerome’s stare, both playful and slyly erotic, lingers just a second too long.
If the Chiron of the film’s first act keeps his eyes to the ground because he’s shy, the teenage Chiron does so out of survival. Terrel (Patrick Decile) makes targeting his closeted classmate into his personal mission, enlisting Kevin to do his bidding. Kevin, who needs to keep up the appearance of heterosexuality to keep from getting harassed at school, is cornered by Terrel one day in the lunchroom. The bully, whose too-big smile disguises a sociopathic intensity, asks if Kevin remembers a game they used to play in their youth, called “Knock Down, Stay Down.” The goal of the exercise was simple: Toss someone to the ground and keep them there at all costs. Terrel asks if Kevin would play the game again, if he were asked. Kevin nods in fear of what would happen if he said no.
The first time the boys’ eyes truly meet — a brief moment of mutual recognition — follows tragedy. Chiron is tapped to be the target of Terrel’s game the following day, beaten first mercilessly by Kevin and then his classmates. Chiron refuses to give up the names of those who hurt him, because he knows it would mean turning Kevin over to the cops. The young man, bloodied and bruised, takes matters into his own hands. Chiron, a tracking shot following in anticipation, walks up to Terrel and breaks a chair over him.
When Chiron is taken away in a police vehicle, Sanders stares at Jerome blankly. The actor’s hollow visage registers shock, but also something more fraught: the agony of doomed love. Chiron has finally come to recognize what has transpired between the two boys on the dark of the beachfront, but it’s too late.
Sanders and Hibbert play Chiron as fragile and wounded, beaten down by years of learning to hate yourself because what others say about you. As an adult, he learns to wear his scars like a suit of armor. Chiron, now portrayed by Trevante Rhodes, looks little like the nine-year-old hiding from the world. His body filled out with muscle after years spent behind bars, Chiron wears chains and a gold grill, tools in his own performance of masculinity. He took a job peddling drugs on the streets when he got out, eventually working his way up to the top. Rhodes, who currently stars on HBO’s Westworld, has the quiet confidence of a skilled hustler. Speaking with a Marlon Brando mumble, his presence does most of the talking.
The key to the film’s continuity is, as Jenkins suggests, the actor’s eyes. There’s the faintest glimmer in Rhodes of the boys he used to be, something small but recognizable. If you look hard enough, you can fill in the gaps of how Chiron (referred to in the final segment as “Black”) became the man he is now.
An unexpected phone call, however, shatters that façade. Kevin (Andre Holland), who now has a daughter and is working as a chef in Miami, heard a song on the jukebox at his restaurant that reminded him of feelings that remain unspoken between them. Chiron is stunned, and Rhodes barely blinks during their brief conversation, as immobile as a butterfly pinned to the wall. As if pulled by forces he isn’t quite ready to understand, Chiron instantly drives from Miami to his hometown. Rhodes remains unblinking, his taut body an instrument of fate.
The sensuality in Moonlight isn’t strictly sexual. Although Kevin and Chiron enjoy a furtive orgasm on the beach, the film’s most physical moments are about healing. One of the film’s more powerful scenes is one in which Juan teaches Chiron to swim, the camera bobbing up and down with the undulation of the ride. The moment resembles baptism, a cleansing of the young boy’s soul. When the thwarted lovers meet again as adults, it’s Kevin’s warm countenance that begins to nurse Chiron’s wounds, which he had trained himself to ignore. In a rare moment of directness, Chiron explains to Kevin that since that night, no one has ever laid hands on him.
In that moment, Kevin smiles. It’s a small gesture, but an affecting one. Throughout his life, Chiron has learned to view his sexuality as a punishment, and Rhodes plays him like a closed fist. To look at a man with desire and have that longing returned was unthinkable, so it was easier not to look at all.
Traditional romances end with a passionate kiss, when the two leads are finally united in a prolonged lip lock after being kept apart by the machinations of the plot. Kevin, though, offers Chiron a different but more crucial form of intimacy: seeing the man for the first time not for who he would like others to view him as but for who Kevin knows him to be, a man burdened by his secret. When Kevin asks Chiron “Who is you?”, the statement is less a question than a provocation. The film ends with Kevin holding Chiron, as if to suggest that they can share the immense weight of being. They can figure the answers out together.
Rhodes’ choices in this process are small, so small that you might not notice them, and that’s by design. The actor remains predominantly silent in his interactions with Kevin — seemingly lurking in the background of his own scenes. To be a bullied youth who grows up to be a closeted adult must feel that, as if you’re constantly waiting for something, even if you’re not quite sure what. His stoicism conveys multitudes about what it means to lock oneself away and the transformative impact of someone finally handing you the keys.
To see in Moonlight isn’t to believe. It can save a life.