The lighting of various skin tones in Moonlight is exquisite, and that’s no small thing. The movie not only gets its title from a form of illumination; it also mimics the way moonlight works, by casting a soft glow on a young man whose life is otherwise harsh.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins, working with cinematographer James Laxton, divides the film into three parts (denoted by a blinking, colored strobe light on the black screen). We first meet the movie’s main character as a young boy (Alex Hibbert) nicknamed Little by the bigger kids he runs around with in a rough Miami neighborhood. Little is different from the others in more than stature; when they roll around play fighting on a field, he stands back, confused. Running from bullies one day, he finds an ironic protector in the neighborhood drug dealer, named Juan (Mahershala Ali). It’s Juan who helps Little come to terms with what he himself is barely beginning to understand: that he’s being targeted by the others because he is gay.
Juan is a fascinating figure, brought to riveting life by Ali. Surely he must be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, we think, yet we come to see that his concern for Little is genuine. There is a deeply moving moment in which Juan takes Little to the beach to teach him how to swim and he holds the boy gently in the water (Jenkins’ camera discreetly watching between waves). As we hear Juan’s words of encouragement amidst the strains of classical music on the soundtrack, an incredible tenderness and peace overwhelms the screen.
The filmmakers take care to capture the particular hues and contours of the actors’ skin.
The movie’s middle section picks up in high school, where Little, now going by his given name of Chiron (Ashton Sanders), is still the target of bullies at school. Home, where his mother (Naomie Harris) struggles with a drug addiction, isn’t much better. And just when an honest encounter with a classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) offers a flicker of hope, that too is brutally extinguished.
Finally the movie jumps ahead to find Chiron a drug-dealing twentysomething, bulked up and going by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes). I won’t divulge much about this final section, except to say that it involves a reunion with Kevin (André Holland) that Jenkins stages with admirable patience, allowing these two “new” actors to warm into their parts until we have no doubt that these are the same two kids we first met in high school.
Indeed, one of the remarkable things about Moonlight is how seamlessly it transitions from one era in Chiron’s life to the next. Part of this is due to the direction, of course, and the consistency of the performances, yet much of the credit can also be given to that cinematography. Whether they’re shooting in the glare of the Miami sun or the blare of a fluorescent classroom or the beam of a midnight moon, Jenkins and Laxton take care to capture the particular hues and contours of the actors’ skin. (This isn’t always the case for African-American actors, even in big-budget, Hollywood films.) Properly lighting for different skin tones might seem to be a technical detail, yet it carries a deeper resonance, especially in the particular story that Moonlight is trying to tell. No matter the trials and tribulations that Chiron endures—from grade school through high school into adulthood—he’s always lit with what can only be described as the aching color of compassion. Moonlight shimmers, from beginning to end, with a beneficent hue.