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‘Moonlight’: A Different Type of ‘Boyhood’

The acclaimed new coming-of-age drama serves as a crucial complement to Richard Linklater’s beloved Oscar-winner

Boyhood was the most critically acclaimed movie of 2014. Praised for its innovative technique of filming the same cast (including its young star, Ellar Coltrane) over the course of 12 years, the coming-of-life drama allowed viewers to watch a young man’s maturation process occur practically in real time. But that didn’t keep this excellent film from provoking thoughtful criticism from writers like Imran Siddiquee, who noted in The Atlantic that, although the movie drew accolades for its unique concept, it wasn’t very inclusive.

“In this otherwise sprawling exploration of a boy’s life in America, there is an essential aspect of the present-day human experience that goes unexplored: race,” Siddiquee observed. “It’s not surprising that the protagonist and his entire family are white; most movies today, still, are about white people. What’s surprising is that, as portrayed in the movie, Mason lives 12 years in America without ever having or overhearing a significant conversation about race. Not on TV, not at school, not with his parents, nor with any of his friends.” He concludes by arguing, “Richard Linklater may have set out to tell one, small story; not the entire story of America. But as long as society continues to present lives like Mason’s as what’s normal, the childhood of people of color … will be seen as variant — as other. To be centered is not merely normalizing — it’s elevating. And to be othered is not only to be seen always as potentially dangerous, but also to feel always in danger.”

I love Boyhood, but it’s fair to point out that some people’s idea of a universal story may not be others’. My beef isn’t with Linklater, who tells his stories honestly and with great artistry, but with an industry that provides few opportunities for depictions of American life that aren’t about white people.

Until now.

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ magnificent Moonlight is not a direct response to Boyhood, and it would be limiting to think of it only through the context of Linklater’s film. But Moonlight very much feels like the movie Siddiquee was craving. This isn’t simply a film about black life — in its themes of belonging, acceptance and love, it’s just as universal as Boyhood. But everything that takes place is underlined by the realities of the black experience and the lingering presence of racism. The movie doesn’t even need to comment on it — people sensitive enough will notice on their own.

Moonlight boasts a clever narrative framework that grows in power as the story rolls along. Split into three sections, the film looks at the life of a young man named Chiron during three crucial moments. A different actor plays Chiron in each section. In the first, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is 9 years old and living in poverty in Florida with a mother (Naomie Harris) consumed by drug addiction. Later, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is in high school, coping with his mother’s worsening condition and tormented by bullying classmates who think he’s gay. Finally, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is in his 20s, dealing drugs in Atlanta and looking far buffer and steelier than when we previously saw him.

In Boyhood, Mason’s development was shown visibly as much as narratively, presenting us with the same actor year after year, playing a character who dealt with divorced parents, romantic troubles, financial worries, and questions about what he wanted to do when he grew up. Linklater smartly avoided the usual iconic scenes we see in rite-of-passage films — the first kiss, losing your virginity — to suggest that life is mostly made up of small, seemingly minor moments.

Only after watching Moonlight did I realize something revealing about Linklater’s strategy: It only works if you’re focusing on a character whose life isn’t that imperiled. Boyhood meanders lovingly through the ordinary travails of a white, straight American boy unburdened by actual stakes. Partly, that’s by design — Linklater’s emphasis on casual, lifelike realism won’t allow him to manufacture artificial drama and contrived conflict. But it speaks to a luxury Mason enjoys that Chiron will never know.

At age nine, Chiron is a sensitive kid, and those closest to him already suspect what he himself might not realize: he’s gay. (Chiron is called a “faggot” by classmates, but he doesn’t understand what the term means.) In a “traditional” indie (i.e., the ones with white people), the character’s coming-out would be the central drama. But Moonlight is consistently complicated by the underlying issues affecting Chiron’s life. Struggling with one’s sexuality is challenging enough. Now imagine being poor. Now imagine having a junkie for a single mom. And now imagine facing racism on a daily basis.

What’s most powerful about Moonlight is that Jenkins, who previously made the superb 2008 romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, lets his film’s leaps forward in time serve as a cause-and-effect chronicling of how we’re shaped by the forces around us. The jolt from period to period is more riveting in Moonlight than in Boyhood partly because the time gaps are longer, but it’s also due to the fact that Chiron’s circumstances are far more uncertain than Mason’s. As a result, whereas Boyhood’s time jumps usually lead to pleasant or whimsical surprises — Mason has a different haircut, experienced a growth spurt or a new stepfather — Moonlight’s are more troubling, the viewer having to reorient to a new-and-not-improved Chiron in each chapter.

The first time Moonlight jumps ahead in time, the teenage Chiron is scrawny, withdrawn, beaten down — that sweet 9-year-old is gone, replaced by a scared adolescent. Moonlight doesn’t explicate the reasons why that might be, but we can draw certain conclusions. Beset at home and school, Chiron has no support system outside of a kindhearted neighbor (Janelle Monáe) who allows him to crash in her guest room when his mom is being too difficult. Still, he’s not strong enough — physically or mentally — to shoulder the pressures he feels or fend off the homophobes who pick on him. What he does have, though, is his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), whom he met when he was 9 and is now a cocky dude who makes him feel less lonely. Perhaps there’s more than just friendship between them — Kevin shows Chiron a tenderness that he doesn’t quite know how to interpret.

In the wake of the bullying he receives as a high-schooler, Chiron remakes himself in his 20s into someone tougher, someone nobody will fuck with. Now sporting gold grills and play-acting the part of a gangster, Chiron has become a tragedy of self-denial, turning into a person who, at least outwardly, bares no trace of the sensitivity that embarrasses him.

If this description makes Moonlight sound like a tribute to victimhood, Jenkins is actually taking his time to show how a young black man like Chiron can travel a bad path, only to find redemption. Encased in his personal armor, the 20-something Chiron receives a call out of the blue from Kevin (now played by André Holland), who hasn’t spoken to him for a decade. This sets in motion a nervous reunion, perhaps a chance to express what wasn’t said the last time they were together. In the process, Chiron will have to confront the pitfalls of stereotypical male blackness that have tripped him up along the way.

Moonlight’s world may be populated with drug dealers, addicts, broken homes, limited economic prospects, and jail stints, but Jenkins never lets his story settle into cliché. The filmmaker understands how Chiron’s struggles with his homosexuality make him a target. Add to that the cultural portrayals of black masculinity, which value exaggerated displays of macho hardness above all else, that Chiron has absorbed in his young life, and you can see why his childhood anxieties are intertwined with issues of race.

Boyhood’s Mason gets to ignore these realities — or, more likely, never notice they exist. (For example, Mason is artistic and sensitive, surrounded by friends who celebrate his individuality, but faces less danger because he’s not gay.) No wonder that Moonlight’s coming-of-age tale has a bracing urgency that Linklater’s film simply cannot match. Mason can decide where he’s going to college and what kind of person he wants to be. For Chiron, the ceiling is so much lower. Avoiding jail, trying to hide his true self from those around him, playing an accepted role of black maleness to fit in: These are the options presented to him. Jenkins’ movie is ultimately as hopeful as Linklater’s, demonstrating how the promise of new love might help Chiron transcend the external and internal obstacles plaguing him. But it’s a very different kind of boyhood — and one that happens far more often in life than we ever see at the movies.