I had heard a growing chorus about the greatness of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight from the festival circuit, and it is now gracing the number one spot on many critics’ Top 10 films of the year. It’s a three-way Oscar race at this point, with Manchester By The Sea, and La La Land.
Before I saw the film, I did not understand the movie poster for Moonlight, but it is actually perfection. The film is split in three parts showing 10 year old “Little”, a young teen and then a young adult Chiron. The poster shows all three actors split in thirds, and how they together make the whole person that is Chiron.
The film Moonlight is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue which was written by Chicago Steppenwolf playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Little/Charon is a young taciturn 10 year old in the first segment. Chased by bullies who taunt him for being a “faggot”. He hides out in a crackhouse, and is improbably rescued by the local drug dealer gang leader, Juan (Mahershala Ali in a tour de force). Mahershala Ali I was mainly familiar with from his excellent work as the lobbyist Remy in House of Cards, but he’s one of those faces who has been in several TV series and movies like Hunger Games Mockingjay. I’ve never seen him like this. He was quite simply amazing. He will be nominated for just about every supporting actor nomination available this awards cycle.
He takes young Little back home to his wife Teresa because Little won’t talk and say where he lives. After Little spends the night, Juan takes him under his wing, and you fear what he might be grooming Little for. But there is just this luminous scene where he teaches Little to Swim on a Miami beach. Juan is the one who tells him about black boys looking blue in the Moonlight. Little lives alone with his single mother nurse, and you can see in his big eyes how he craves a father figure. He even asks Juan and Teresa, “What does ‘faggot’ mean?” and your heart stops. Juan and Teresa explain, but also are accepting and tender. Every character in this film has layers and complexities — the local drug lord, is the caring father figure, full of acceptance.
The second segment shows lanky Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still being bullied at school. He has one consistent friend, Kevin, who was his best pal in the first segment, too. There is an incredible tender scene between Kevin and Chiron alone on the beach one night. But then afterwards, he is betrayed. This moment in the still above is when Chiron looks at his beaten face in the mirror, and you can just see him girding himself, and saying, “No. More.” He explodes, and it had my heart in my throat just like the ending of FandryFandry. You’ve seen this poor kid, now with a crack addicted neglectful mother, just endure and endure and he just can’t any more. Many movies would end there.
But the final segment shows what Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has become as an adult. He’s now a drug dealer with gold teeth and macho attitude. The way he dresses, and his car all show how he’s trying to live up to what Juan was. He gets a call from Kevin (André Holland) out of the blue, and that sends him driving hours through the night back to Miami to see Kevin again. The film ends so tenderly and with such a sense of hope. My heart was just so full.
This is an incredible film. Groundbreaking in its structure. It examines the life of a young gay black man, and examines the toxicity of the roles of masculinity. It’s complex, and it’s also just so luminously filmed. It is a gorgeous film to watch.
2016 may suck in general, but we’ve been given such a gift this year with great films. Don’t miss Moonlight. It’s still playing in theaters.