Forget Rogue One and the latest Marvel face-off: The last scene of Moonlight rivals both for intensity and suspense. Without giving everything away, we watch two men circling each other, nothing exchanged but conversation and a cup of tea. Plenty of things feel unspoken. They haven’t seen each other in years; each became someone the other didn’t expect. And we can’t help but yearn for a bold declaration, a When Harry Met Sally ending, to release the tension. Is this a seduction? Could it be anything else?
Barry Jenkins, the talented director of Moonlight, doesn’t give these two men an easy resolution. Their stories will continue long after the lights go up: together or separately, we can’t be sure. But this scene marks the first step into a new narrative, one that may not be bound by all the rules and expectations out there. There’s a lifetime of pain and repression in those last beats, a life that’s been portrayed for us, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. It’s a deceptively simple coda to a movie that opens a door and offers our protagonist Chiron — if not happiness, if not love — a chance to find connection.
Moonlight was my favorite movie that I saw in 2016. Everyone I know who’s seen it thought it was beautifully made: the healing shots of the ocean, the excellent group of actors — many unknown to me, the overlapping violin/piano scored by Nicholas Britell. Shout-out to the actors: Naomie Harris in a big, brave turn; Mahershala Ali as a conflicted source of wisdom; Andre Holland as a charming, enticing old friend. Everything works because of three powerful, bonded performances sharing the lead role: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes.
A friend felt that, yes, the movie was well-done, but clearly wasn’t made for her. And that makes sense. Critics always praise movies for being universal — you don’t have to be gay to be moved! — but the real virtue is how specific Jenkins’ script and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s screenplay are.
Moonlight is the bildungsroman of a gay black man who grows up on the poor side of Miami, raised by an addicted mother, and his parental substitute (Juan) is a drug dealer. I can’t relate to most of that, but I understood some moments of Chiron’s self-discovery: his struggles to contextualize his masculinity and his sexuality with where he grew up, wondering if the two can really co-exist. Chiron starts as Little (his childhood nickname), shy, often silent, alone. Even at a young age, he knows enough about what separates him from his classmates:
Little: Am I a faggot?
Juan: No. You’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.
You can be gay. You can be ___________. It’s the hardest thing to embrace, and Chiron spends the movie trying to accept it. He’s seen his mother succumb to her demons; will he follow in her path? Does he have the courage to pursue joy and intimacy? As the movie ends, Chiron’s still an unwritten page, but maybe, at least, ready to live in the world without hiding from it.