Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali Credit: David Bornfriend/A24

Earlier this year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faced a torrent of criticism when, for the second season in a row, it nominated only white actors and actresses in the four performing categories. Academy voters looking to address that imbalance this year will be all over Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, an intimate and haunting drama about a poor, fatherless African-American kid growing up in the closet in the predominantly black Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. No less than three fine young actors play the boy at age nine, 16, and 26, and another three play the schoolmate whose fate is intertwined with his. Naomie Harris gives a striking performance as the boy’s angry, crack-addicted mother. But the strongest work comes from Mahershala Ali (Netflix’s House of Cards) in the supporting role of Juan, a neighborhood drug dealer who takes the boy under his wing. Ali’s character may disappear from the narrative after the first of its three chapters, but he continues to shape the boy’s emotional journey to the very last scene.

Adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Moonlight dwells on questions of identity. McCraney stresses the protagonist’s mutability by giving him three different names: at age nine he goes by Little, the cruel nickname bestowed on him by classmates; at age 16 he tries to muster some self-respect by insisting on his given name, Chiron; and at 26 he submerges himself in his race, rechristening himself “Black.” The movie plunges into the touchy subject of homophobia in the black community, yet the protagonist is so rounded that he can’t be reduced to his race or sexuality; in fact the challenge for him is to fashion an identity for himself outside both these norms. Juan faces a similar dilemma: he longs to mentor the lonely child, but his criminal career prevents him from setting any kind of example for the boy.

Juan is powerfully built, boss of a small drug crew, but from the first scene he reveals himself as a man given to small kindnesses, promising to pray for the ailing mother of his drug lieutenant (Shariff Earp). As Juan patrols a condemned housing project, he hears something inside one of the units—it’s Little (Alex Hibbert), who has hidden there to escape from a trio of bullies. Jenkins shoots from inside the darkened unit as Juan pries the plywood off a window and angelic light comes flooding in around his tall, muscular form. “OK if I take the front door?” he jokes. Gentle and solicitous, Juan drives the silent boy to a fast-food joint and feeds him, then takes him over to the home of his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to stay the night. In the morning Juan returns Little to his strung-out mother, Paula, expecting to be thanked, but she freezes him out; when he offers his hand to the boy in farewell, she turns the child away from him.

McCraney positions Juan as the man who’s going to open Little up to himself. Cuban by birth, Juan loves the ocean; he takes Little to the beach for the first time in his life and teaches the boy to float, holding him parallel with the water. “I got you, I promise,” he says, something the child probably hasn’t heard too often. As they sit on the beach together, Juan advises Little, “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be.” His words encapsulate the boy’s character arc, yet he might be speaking of himself as well. That night Juan discovers Paula and her boyfriend parked a few yards from his drug corner, smoking crack. When he pulls the mother out of the car to reprimand her, she wheels on him furiously, demanding to know what he wants from her child and reminding him that he makes his livelihood off her addiction. Hammering in the final nail, she spits, “You ain’t shit.”

Ali gives a restrained performance that, combined with the character’s altruism, suggests great moral strength. Yet something in Juan’s swagger betrays the prideful element in his generosity, and Paula’s shaming of him is nothing compared to the comeuppance he receives in the first chapter’s final scene. Little, seated at the kitchen table in Teresa’s apartment, asks the couple why his classmates are calling him a “faggot.” They assure the boy that he’s too young to know if he’s gay—as Teresa puts it, “You’ll know when you know.” But just as they seem to be resolving his question, Little turns to the subject of Juan’s identity. “My mama does drugs?” he asks, and Juan confirms his suspicions. “And you sell drugs?” the boy continues, to which Juan, staring at the table to avoid Little’s gaze, can only reply, “Yes.” Without another word, the boy gets up from the table and walks out, leaving Juan to choke on the moment.

When McCraney advances the narrative seven years, taking up with Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in high school, Juan vanishes from the movie. Weirdly, no one even mentions him, though the boy continues to find comfort and protection with Teresa. Has Juan been incarcerated? Murdered by rival dealers? Has he simply pulled up and left, the same as Little’s biological father? Maybe a scene on the cutting-room floor explains all this, but Jenkins was wise to discard it—the vacuum of information only enlarges the question of where Juan’s life was taking him. Meanwhile, Chiron suffers even worse bullying in school, and his long-standing friendship with his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) deepens into sexual passion before curdling into betrayal. That betrayal pierces even more deeply coming in the wake of Juan’s unmasking in the earlier chapter.

Juan may have exited the story without explanation, yet his memory hangs over the action. In the third and final chapter, the protagonist has moved to Atlanta, gotten into bodybuilding, and reinvented himself as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a muscular drug dealer. The grown-up Kevin (André Holland) gets his number from Teresa and, ten years after they parted, tries to make contact again. But when the two men are reunited, Kevin can barely recognize his old friend. Chiron seemed like a boy that might turn into someone special, but Black, true to his name, turns out to be no more than the ghetto life he inherited. You have to wonder why the protagonist would aspire to be Juan, given that Juan couldn’t stand to be himself.  v