“Moonlight” eclipses your perceptions of identity, particularly in how easily we label people by what they do instead of who they are.
Overpraised, but undeniably dynamic, “Moonlight” is a bullseye for fans of “The Wire” and its ability to deftly debunk the sort of hideous stereotypes “deplorables” often cast upon gays and African Americans. Contrary to Donald Trump’s uninformed vision of “the hood,” the complex characters we see inhabiting Miami’s Liberty City projects are able to walk down the street without being shot. But there’s no doubt most of them are wounded, particularly a young boy named Chiron.
As played by Alex Hibbert, Chiron doesn’t quite realize yet that he’s gay, but he definitely knows he’s different. And so do the bullies we see chasing him through his neighborhood; violent intent in their eyes. This is our introduction to a shy, highly introverted child who we’re about to tag along with on a nearly two-decade journey of self-discovery. It will be a path littered with violence, heartbreak and betrayal. But it’s also one of self-reliance, hope and the promise of a better day.
It’s a coming-of-age tale writ large, yet director Barry Jenkins – culling from fellow Liberty Citian Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” – renders it so small and intimate you almost feel like you’re eavesdropping. That he does it with a minimum of dialogue and sans a traditional plot makes it all the more impressive. But he’d be the first to credit his success to his three lead actors – Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes (playing Chiron as a child, teen and adult, respectively) – who quietly, yet vociferously, communicate every thought, fear and doubt of a kid who is not just an outcast from a predominately white society, but also from his own community because of his sexual preference.
The ensuing loneliness and guilt Chiron experiences are almost unbearable – even painful – to witness. It affects you deeply. It also boldly challenges your definitions of loyalty, integrity and manhood. But what lingers is how “Moonlight” eclipses your perceptions of identity, particularly in how easily we label people by what they do instead of who they are.
Like “The Wire” did with Idris Elba’s narcotics entrepreneur, Stringer Bell, Jenkins refuses to stand in judgment of Juan (Oscar-contender Mahershala Ali), a local crack dealer who repeatedly rides to Chiron’s rescue, not just saving the scared, scrawny kid from those aforementioned neighborhood bullies, but also from the boy’s fight not to accept his gayness. In most Hollywood movies, Juan would be the villain, “the thug” who ruins lives for profit. Initially, that’s exactly how Jenkins wants us to see him. But just when you think you know Juan, Jenkins pulls the rug out by taking us – along with Chiron – to the warm, unadorned home he shares with his even more compassionate lady, Teresa (pop-star Janelle Monae, solid in her acting debut).
In a way, Juan and Chiron become addicted to each other; one in desperate need of a surrogate dad and the other fulfilling a fantasy of raising a street-smart son committed to being whoever he chooses. Your conscience tells you to hiss Juan, especially after learning he’s the chief supplier for Chiron’s crack-addicted single mom (a harrowing Naomie Harris). Yet your heart wants you to see him as Chiron’s savior from a mother who’s not above goading her son into giving her cash for her next fix.
“Moonlight” brims with these interpersonal dichotomies. It’s also shot gorgeously by James Laxton; often in hints of blue that perfectly set the backdrop for teenage Chiron’s budding relationship with his fellow closeted classmate, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The first time they make love – on a moonlit beach – is textbook in its composition, with Laxton’s camera zeroed in on Chiron’s fingers as he digs them deep into the sand, clutching the granules until a moment of pure ecstasy allows him to finally let go in sweet release.
Even more beautiful is the slow build of passion when as adults Chiron and Kevin (now played by Andre Holland) reconnect, and finally find the courage to rectify the many years of disappointment and denial. It comprises the third part on Jenkins’ triptych – each section running approximately 35 minutes – but it’s by far the most powerful, as the years of deafening background noise suddenly go silent and all they can hear is truth. It’s a spectacular coda, but I didn’t walk away eager to anoint “Moonlight” as feverishly as some. I had nits to pick, particularly in how some characters are either severely underdeveloped, or in the case of Juan, simply disappear with little explanation. I also found the film’s three-segment format to be disjointed, and I wasn’t totally buying into the adult Chiron, who in the space of a few short years goes from rail thin to looking like The Rock.
Perhaps that’s why I ended up admiring “Moonlight” more than loving it. Yet there’s no denying it being a monumental achievement in the annals of gay and black cinema. To them, two of Hollywood’s most underserved constituents, it extends an olive branch in the wake of last year’s all-white Oscars. But even more, it offers all of us a chance to better know two subcultures of American life that for now can only dream of being counted whole.
MOONLIGHT (R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.) Cast includes Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland and Jharrel Jerome. Grade: B+