Review: Moonlight (2016)




Barry Jenkins


Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney


111 min.


Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris

MPAA Rating

R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout

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There may never be a time when coming out stories aren’t significant or important works. Moonlight explores an even less frequent topic of such films, that of a young black boy coming to terms with his sexuality while dealing with the nuances of adolescence.

Surrounded by a drug-addict mother (Naomie Harris) and an absent father, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert as a boy, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult) must come to terms with his homosexuality in an environment inimical to such revelations.

With no role-models for love and compassion, it takes an unexpected stranger (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae) to provide the kind of advice and guidance required for his advancing maturity. Add in his lifelong friend Kevin (Jaden Piner at age 9, Jharrel Jerome at age 16, and Andre Holland as an adult) and you have a situation where daunting exterior pressures are diminished by the support of those closest to him.

Director Barry Jenkins carefully maps out his story across three separate time periods in Chirons’s life. They are distinctly separated, but well connected. The film’s approach to the narrative is one of trying to find yourself in an world that is often actively hostile. As Chiron comes of age, so too does he begin to understand himself and those around him enough to find love and romance where he might never have found them without the strong support structure he eventually develops. It is ultimately a realistic and relatable journey.

All of the performances in the film, from the six actors playing Chiron and Kevin as they grow up to the compassionate Ali and Monae to the destructive nature of Harris, are finely honed performances by actors giving voice to this important subject with the gravity necessary and warranted.

While it’s imperative such films come from LGBT voices, sometimes a great film comes from the pen and lens of someone outside of that community. Barry Jenkins chose Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play as the subject of his second feature, a risky decision that could have hampered his future prospects. Ultimately, the decision works out and while it might have had the potential to feel more personal in the hands of someone who had such experiences, strong filmmakers can connect with subjects which they aren’t intimately familiar and still effectively convey that to the audience. Jenkins has shown himself to be such a filmmaker.

White characters have been at the center of countless gay-themed films over the last three decades, starting as the central characters in stories about the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, yet black, Hispanic, Asian, and other minority representation within the LGBT cinema genre has been limited. As society begins to more openly embrace these characters, finding a film that gives voice to a subset of the LGBT community that still faces social pressure to be straight or closeted, denying their very natures, are even more necessary. A film like Moonlight will aid immeasurably in the attempts to open the community up to disparate voices and help normalize these characters for future exploration.

Moonlight is a film of deep passion, unabashed openness, and the kind of frankness that all great works of cinema must exhibit before they can be accepted and disseminated beyond the narrow demographics that would normally be the target for such endeavors. Perhaps it will be a film that helps encourage others like it and, of even more importance, entice other filmmakers to give a voice to these kinds of characters and these kinds of stories.

Review Written

July 11, 2019

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