Moonlight (2016)

A filmic opera about a young black man

Written by:
Paula Farmer
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Moonlight is both intense and sometimes hard to watch, as well as brilliant, haunting and not to be missed. This film by Barry Jenkins is a coming of age story of sorts about a young, black, gay boy, Chiron, growing up in the South surrounded by abject poverty and raised by a drug-addicted single mother. But beyond what this film is about, is how the story is told. It is poetic and lyrical, subtle and minimal. It unfolds like a 3-part opera, showing the stages of the main character’s life – boyhood, teen, young adult. Each chapter, complete with brief musical interludes, has a title, based on the name he is commonly referred to at the time. Also, at each stage he gets a slightly stronger awareness of his homosexuality, whether he accepts it and lives that truth or not.

In the first chapter, Chiron, portrayed by Alex Hibbert, is a shy and deeply troubled eight-year-old boy who is perpetually taunted and bullied by classmates. They call him a faggot. Chiron is not even sure what that is, let alone whether he is gay or not. To his rescue is the kind and observant Juan, played quietly and thoughtfully by Mahershala Ali. Juan is the local drug dealer who notices Chiron as a victim, taking him under his wing and to his house one day. There Chiron meets Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae) who, like Juan, feels a deep connection to the quiet, tortured soul. To the distrust and anger of Chiron’s mom, played effectively by Naomie Harris, the couple befriend Chiron then and throughout his life. This includes at times when his mom goes through drug-induced rages, taking everything out on Chiron, often kicking him out the house, such as it is. Juan and Teresa always have encouraging words, warm food and a comfortably made bed for him.

As an adolescent, Chiron is played by Ashton Sanders. Here he is still quiet, troubled and unsure of his sexuality and life overall. He continues to be plagued by his mother’s demons and the bullying ways of some of his classmates. As in boyhood, he maintains a relationship with his buddy, Sandy. In one especially poignant scene when the two are alone on the beach at night, Sandy, confirms Chiron’s homosexual desires. In a matter of a few days from that fateful night, this his only friend, will mark his life again, but in a deeply painful way on several levels. Once again he is the victim of bullying, but this time his friend unwittingly, has joined forces with his enemies. The incident changes Chiron who refuses to continue to play victim and takes matters into his own hands.

Chapter three is several years later for Chiron and after incarceration. Juan is no longer around, but Chiron, now portrayed by Shariff Earp, has followed in his footsteps as a drug dealer. He is still a man of few words, but seemingly more confident and toughened up. Here we see his life come full circle. He reconnects with the select few people who mattered most in his life, and he gets some answers to soulful questions.

Does Moonlight show a man as a product of his environment? A victim of his disadvantage circumstances? This may not be reflective of all young black men, but certainly, effectively represents enough. It shows such a life, although unfair and harsh, with dignity and humanity, and the movie’s style, look and sound, with seamless performances by the entire cast is nothing short of a cinematic gift.

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