THIS IS THE STORY OF A LIFETIME.
I love the poster for this film. The colors are deep shades of blue, purple and cyan and the three faces of the lead character have been fused into one powerful image. Symbolizing different stages of the character in the film, it’s also a reference to the title of the unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, ”In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, that partly inspired director Barry Jenkins to write the screenplay for this movie. The story of Chiron, a black man growing up in Miami, is deeply moving.
Divided into three chapters, we meet Chiron at three stages in life. As a boy, he’s called ”Little” in school and constantly bullied by other boys. One day when he’s hiding from them, he meets a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who turns out to be a friendly man. He takes Chiron home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), which is the beginning of a long friendship. Whenever Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), hooked on the drugs that the guilt-ridden Juan is selling, fails her son, he has a spare family in Teresa and Juan. That’s also true when Chiron is a teenager, which is the film’s second chapter.
Still bullied, he’s trying to come to grips with himself as a young man, a journey that continues into the third chapter when Chiron is an adult. Much more hardened, he’s found a dangerous line of work in Atlanta, but is still haunted by his upbringing…
Fusing two real-life experiences
I shouldn’t reveal too much of what happens in the film, but homosexuality is one of the themes. That part represents playwright McCraney’s experiences, but Jenkins also recognized the portrait of Chiron’s crack-smoking mother, which along with the Miami setting is what he had in common with McCraney. Jenkins fused his own upbringing and what it was like to become an adult in the often troubled Miami area of Liberty City with McCraney’s story. The result is a mesmerizing, authentic portrait of the challenges facing a black man, especially a gay one, and how limited the options are.
The first chapter is a sweet tale of a boy finding adult role models, the second chapter is a somewhat predictable but still compelling study of high-school bullying, its consequences and the first trembling experiences of love, and the third chapter ties everything together in a whirlwind of emotions with an ending that is thankfully open and rings true. All these pieces of the film are united by three excellent performances by Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes who play Chiron and actually never met until after the movie was made, all because Jenkins wanted them to explore and find the character on their own without each other’s influence.
They are beautifully supported by especially British star Naomie Harris (who shot her performance in just three days while promoting SPECTRE in the U.S.), amazing as Chiron’s mother who also has a journey of her own throughout the chapters. Ali, then mostly known for his work on House of Cards, is also good as Juan who keeps his Liberty City corner in check but is still embarrassed to see what his drugs are doing to people who would have good lives without them.
The scenes between young Chiron and Juan when the latter takes him to the beach and teaches him how to swim have a poetic beauty, which is again captured near the very end. The film’s tender portrait of homosexuality is another asset. In 2011, gay CNN anchor Don Lemon made waves by saying that being gay is ”the worst thing you can be in black culture”. That’s controversial, but Lemon isn’t the first to raise the issue. If Moonlight does its share in fighting prejudice, all the better.
Moonlight 2016-U.S. 111 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins. Cast: Trevante Rhodes (Chiron, as adult), Ashton Sanders (Chiron, as teenager), Alex Hibbert (Chiron, as child), André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris… Mahershala Ali.
Oscars: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Ali), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama).
Last word: “The obvious part is that Tarell and his mom had the same sort of ordeal with addiction that my mom and I went through. So there was that. But that’s biography. More emotionally, I saw the idea of a character who exists in a world, who doesn’t participate, and who starts to take these cues based on how the world reacts to him on how he should be, who he should be, and what face he should put on to best survive in the world. And once I keyed in all that, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. I kind of get it,’ especially because of the place and the time. I was like, ‘There’s something in this.’ I thought there was something that wasn’t in the play that could be realized by making it visual.” (Jenkins, The A.V. Club)