Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 51 min. Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5 .
Do not be conformed to this world…
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ film is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Whites are seen only in the background, so the film is about more than racism, it is about a young boy facing homophobic cruelty as well. Even more, it is about the protagonist, named Chiron, struggling to find his own identity in a Miami ghetto. He is helped along the way by a very imperfect man who insists that he must choose his path himself and never give in to others. His story is told in 3 parts, named after two nicknames and his given name: Little, Chiron, and Black. Those “others” who would force him into a box labeled “faggot” are the boy’s classmates who derisively dub the scrawny 10-year-old “Little” (Alex Hibber). At school, only the Cuban-American Kevin (Jaden Piner) befriends him, telling him he must never seem soft if he is to escape from those bullying him.
It is while running and hiding from the bullies in a vacant apartment used by druggies that Little connects with the man who will begin the process of bringing the boy out of the inner chamber into which he has withdrawn. Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a drug dealer who apparently has used the apartment in his trade. Finding the boy there, he greets him I friendly way, but is unable to get the withdrawn child to respond, even when he takes him to a diner for a meal. Still, he does not abandon Little but takes him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Equally warm and friendly, she is more successful, getting Chiron to tell his real and his nickname. Because the boy will not say where he lives, they invite him to stay overnight. The next morning, when Juan takes the boy home, the lad’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is both grateful and suspicious of the man. She might be a junkie and sexually promiscuous, but she still loves her son.
Juan continues to figure in Little’s life, as does Teresa, the latter often offering her apartment as a sanctuary from the boy’s troubles at school and home. Juan is a drug dealer, and yet also a caring man who continues to reaches out to the confused and bullied boy, gestures to which Paula is opposed. In one touching scene he instills trust in the boy by taking him to the beach for a swimming lesson. Standing in water over the boy’s head, Juan gently persuades him to lie back in his arms, telling him to relax and assuring him that he will not let him sink. The boy does so, the image of the two for a moment taking on the semblance of a baptism. The latter too is an occasion requiring trust, or faith–the Biblical word can be translated either way. Bolstered by such trust, Little soon is able to follow his mentor’s instruction and finds himself swimming. It is back on the beach that Juan tells Little he must decide his identify for himself the path his life is to take. Juan himself has to face the truth about the path he has taken in a night scene in which he spots Paul doing drugs with a man in a car. He scolds her for neglecting her son, but she reminds him that he is the one who sold her the drugs. He has no come back for this.
In the second part Chiron is a 16-year-old (now played by Ashton Sanders) in high school and still bullied by the same kids as earlier. Juan is no longer around, but Teresa continues to let Chiron stay overnight so he can avoid his mother, so into drugs now that she demands money from him in one scene. The bullies are led by Terrel (Patrick Decile) who mocks him even in class. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has remained his friend, the two one night even kissing on the beach as Kevin rubs his friend’s crotch. It is Kevin who gives Chiron the new nickname of Black. However, friendship can go only so far. Outside, Tyrell, with his gang looking, on forces Kevin into a game of “Knocked Down, Stay Down” with Black. This consists of Kevin hitting his friend hard enough to knock him off his feet. Black continues to get up (reminding me of a similar scene in Cool Hand Luke). The game ends with the boys beating and kicking the prone victim. School counselors try to get bruised Black to reveal the identity of his attackers, but instead, he marches into a classroom and brings down a chair hard on Tyrell’s head.
Part 3 unfolds about ten years later when Chiron is living in Atlanta. Those who bullied him would not dare so now. Since his release from “juvie” years earlier, the once scrawny lad has transformed himself into one of those specimens that body builder Charles Atlas used to advertise in comic books and pulp magazines— “From 90 Pound Weakling to…” He is surprised to receive a phone call from Kevin, the two not having been in touch since the former was sent away to juvenile detention. Kevin, revealing that he is a cook in Miami, invites him down for a meal. Showing up shortly thereafter, the two share how they have moved on, though sexually, in different directions. That Chiron is gaining in maturity and setting his own course we see in the scene that is inserted between those with Kevin. On his return to Miami Chiron stops off to visit Paula in a rehab center where she also is taking charge of her life. Somehow Chiron has learned where she is. What transpires between them is a beautiful moment, as is the last scene of the two friends in the restaurant, the “chef’s special” cooked by Kevin taking on a symbolic meaning. That matters will not unfold in the direction that Chiron had hoped becomes evident when his friend shows him a wallet photo of his little daughter. Chiron’s future is yet to be determined, but it is evident from his buffed body that he has followed his friend’s long-ago advice and abandoned the “softness” that had made him a victim.
One of the strengths of this film is its lack of stereotypes, at least in regards to the main characters. Juan might at first seem like the usual movie drug pusher, and then we see how tender is his heart, Little has done nothing to attract his attention other than to show up at one of the dealer’s “drug holes.” When the boy does not respond to his greeting, the man could have just shooed him away. Instead, he takes the boy to the person he knows who is able to break through barriers, Teresa. Juan could have walked out of Little’s life after the boy’s mother Paula made it clear she did not want him around, but he doesn’t, even when she accuses him of interfering with her raising the boy. It would be interesting to know what happened to him, why he disappeared from the boy’s life, but, as demonstrated by the swimming lesson scene, the imperfect man played a positive role in Chiron’s development. Juan would never have been accepted as a volunteer at a Boy’s Club, and yet few others could have been a better mentor to the needy boy.
The likes of Paula the junkie we have seen up close in such movies as Precious, and yet she is more than this in the film. She does succumb to the allurement of drugs and sex to escape from the pressures of being a mother in the ghetto, but she is concerned for Chiron when he stays away. And what mother wouldn’t want to keep her son away from a drug dealer. She probably could not believe that he was genuinely interested in her son. At last, she is seeming to be making a real effort at rehabilitation when her grown son visits her at the treatment center. Her expression of unconditional love is a high moment of the film. Like Chiron, Kevin, and Juan, she is a complex character trying to make her way in a world that is not so much hostile as it is of just dismissing her as a person of no importance.
Shot with lots of close-ups of the faces of the characters, Barry Jenkins’ is a slice of life film providing audiences with a dramatic view of a man who in 21st century America is a two-times outsider—a black male in a white society in which crowds still must remind the country that “Black Lives Matter,” and a gay man in a society in which homophobia is still fueled by such fear and hatred that lives can be threatened, and sometimes taken. None of this is overtly stated in this film, the filmmaker assuming that we know this. His agenda is one of seeking understanding. That he succeeds while also entertaining us is a tribute to his skill and that of a cast so talented that we become totally immersed in their stories. In many ways, Mr. Jenkins reminds me of the first film of another creative black director, John Singleton, whose Boyz N the Hood so mesmerized me. At the time, I wrote the following in one of my several reviews of the film:
I have explored this film with a number of audiences, telling them that John Singleton has given as much an entrée into ghetto life as we, with our white skins, can ever hope to gain. He shows us the downside of being black and consigned to South Central L.A., but also the humanity of the characters, some like Tre and Ricky who cling to their dream of breaking out of the hood by going to college—and others, like Doughboy who are trapped, destined to die with a short time from one of the many bullets fired each night by gang members. By showing the close relationship between Tre and his father, Singleton’s film becomes a strong plea not only for peace and non-violence but also for African American men to offer themselves as strong, positive role models for their children.
Moonlight also is a film that all Americans should, no, need, to see!
This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.