Black and Gay in America
Last night I had the pleasure of being invited to a special showing of writer/director’s gorgeous new film, “Moonlight”. We are all aware that the film industry rarely explores perspectives that aren’t white, male, and heterosexual. This does not allow for a more diverse sense of storytelling, but it also stops some very important narratives from being told. “Moonlight” just might be the film this year to shake things up.
“Moonlight” chronicles three distinct times in the life of Chiron that span the periods of from childhood to adulthood. When he meets drug-dealing Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), he begins to learn about himself. He has other problems that include his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and his own personal struggles with sexuality and trust begin to shape him in various ways.
Most coming-of-age films touch upon the same plot ideas and these deal with nostalgic emotion. Jenkins develops a character that feels like a real person; one that is relatable. When Chiron is introduced as a young child, he seems mute. It isn’t until he meets Juan and Teresa that things begin to change. Maternal influence is a common theme throughout the film, as Chiron deals with his drug-addicted biological mother and a supportive almost adopted mother. Regardless of whatever age he is, these two environments are seen as polarizing ways that allow Chiron’s character to evolve in a fluid way.
One of the important themes in the film is sexual orientation and nit is dealt with subtly and powerfully. Questioning oneself or feeling ashamed of one’s identity can certainly result in cutting himself off from others. A heartfelt discussion with Juan and Teresa regarding sexuality is perhaps one of the film’s most emotionally impactful scenes, essentially telling Chiron to never be ashamed of himself. “Moonlight” pulls apart what it means to be being a teenager, with its ups and downs and from first love to extreme social pressures that could drive anybody over the edge.
Chiron as an adult gets a phone call from a voice that he hasn’t heard in years, which immediately seems to change everything. Forgiveness is a major theme in his life as an adult— he must face those who tormented him in his childhood and teenage years. I am still feeling the impact of the film. The performances are all powerful performances and they thereby allow the screenplay to have a very special life. Chiron is portrayed by three actors over the course of time. Alex Hibbert is the young Chiron, and is extremely quiet during his screen time. He remains engaging through his use of body language, which tell us a great deal about the role, without a single word being spoken. Ashton Sanders as a teenaged Chiron brings every the awkwardness and curiosity of adolescence convincingly. Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron allows the most subtle aspects of the character to breathe without much exposition. All three come together to bring Chiron to life., Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris are also excellent in the supporting roles of Juan and Paula. Ali’s heart-to-heart moments with Hibbert are memorable, as they simply feel so natural. Harris displays a great amount of range in every scene, allowing Chiron’s story to feel very real.
Barry Jenkins knows how to tell a story in a way that is both genuine and consistently engaging. This is a unique coming-of-age film that conveys a different perspective and an array of clever themes in a subtle way. Set in the 1980’s Miami during the height of Reagan’s War on Drugs, “Moonlight” follows Chiron as he comes of age, falls in love and discovers his own sexuality. At the same time, he is learning to embrace his own vision of masculinity as characters come in and out of his life. This is a crafted study of African-American masculinity from an important and vital creative voice in contemporary cinema.
When we meet young Chiron, he has been bullied at school and beaten down by a harsh home life. Chiron is at risk of becoming a statistic: another black man dominated and ultimately destroyed by the system. However, Chiron is a survivor, and, as he grows, it becomes clear that his real battle isn’t even on the streets. It’s an internal one that deals with his complex love for his best friend.
“Moonlight” defies coming-of-age conventions. Instead of offering a clear progression of time, Jenkins pulls us into an atmospheric subjectivity, an impressionistic vision of Chiron’s psyche in which sensuality, pain, and unhealed wounds powerfully dominate.
The best scene in the film is also its longest. It depicts two men who, in their boyhood days, shared both a sexual experience and a violent episode and meet again after years apart at a close-to-empty diner, hesitantly exchanging information about the lives they’ve lived in the interim. Chiron, after a stint in juvenile detention, is now “trappin’”; Kevin (André Holland) talks of a marriage, kids, and an amiable divorce. These are real-time conversational moments and Jenkins gets the balance perfectly, allowing for an interpersonal intimacy with his characters and a sensory understanding of their unspoken desires.
It is interesting in that it seems that nobody knew about “Moonlight” until a month ago. There had been whispers among some critics who got the chance to see it early, but the indie film was a relatively unknown quantity until the first trailer was released. It was hypnotic, mysterious, and stunningly gorgeous and it unleashed a wave of anticipation. After watching that trailer and the buzz at the Telluride Film Festival. It became “the” film and we then sensed knew that it is something special.
You will not be able to stop thinking about this movie- it has haunted me ever since I saw it. It is poetic and graceful, emotional without ever feeling manipulative. The storytelling is elegant and patient, and the performances are wonderful, the cinematography is thrilling, the use of music is brilliant. It’s a vital, sensational and unforgettable movie.