Moonlight (2016) chronicles the transformation of a quiet child into adulthood — struggling to survive in a dysfunctional and violent world. The story is framed in three acts: child, young adult, and adult — betraying the structure of the source material, a stage play. Produced on a low budget and shot rapidly, the film possesses the cinematic quality of a more lavish production, and coupled with excellent acting performances, apt real-world locations, and a sharply written script — it feels remarkably natural , almost documentary. These ingredients come together to produce a vivid picture of Chiron’s world.

This is a story about identity — male identity, black identity, and sexual identity. It explores social expectations in a working-class community where young adults and men are subject to repressive social conformity, under relentless pressure to act out ‘macho’ stereotypes. It’s a story about Chiron’s search for humanity in a world devoid of tenderness and compassion. In this drug-dependent culture everything is for sale. Everything has a price. Chiron’s journey or quest, if you like, is a search for humanity in a remorselessly brutalised and broken world. Luckily, he’s able to find some guidance from an unlikely mentor, a drug dealer called Juan. Juan takes him to the sea, and teaches him to swim. The sea becomes a reoccurring motif, a pseudo-baptism, associated with free expression, and emotional connection — a kind of bridge from repression to self-transcendence, becoming ‘the real person’ Chiron must be to shed his passive shell.

Chiron’s world is permeated by drug users, and dealers. Where there’s a culture of limited opportunity, and the malaise of lifelong underachievement there’s a readymade market of weed smokers and crack addicts. The boys own mother is a user, desperate to rid herself of failure through boyfriends and chemical highs. She does her best to bring him up, but her best is never enough — she’s barely able to keep her life together, unable to give Chiron the support he needs and deserves.

The story begins with Chiron as a child — ‘Little’ as he is known — running from bullies and hiding in a crack house. Taken under the wing of Juan and his girlfriend, Chiron learns that he must find his own answers to life, and whatever those answers are, he must embrace them and develop the strength to defend them from ridicule. The system, on the other hand, cannot protect him. Well-meaning teachers, security staff, and social workers are unable to stop him being bullied and publicly beaten-up, on college property even, because their reach doesn’t stretch deep enough into the community. As well as being a story about Chiron, this is a story about drugs and the black American working-class: a culture at war with itself, one that’s closed off from mainstream opportunity. It’s a place where the ‘American Dream’ means dealing crack, and living with the ever-present danger of being murdered in some futile gang-related turf war.

The original title, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, alludes not only to the meaningless of actual skin colour in moonlight, but the emotional world of ‘blue’ — the psychological suffering within. Although this is not a story offering a magic wand to make everything better, it does tentatively suggest hope. Even where routine repression and abuse are rife, humanity and hope remains — discoverable through small acts of love and tenderness.