“MOONLIGHT’ IS AN extraordinary portrait of a world, personified by a -gay – Black man, Chiron. Chiron is trapped by his environment and forced into living up to the way he is defined by society, while harboring – under layers of silence and resentment – his real sense of self that, out of self-protection, he dare not reveal.
We are both, the movie suggests, how we’re perceived – how society defines you – as well as how we perceive ourselves.
The portrait is structured in three movements. In the first, we meet Chiron as a lonely kid (Alex Hibbert). He’s bullied and taunted by his peers and his drugged out mother, Paula (Naomi Harris in a raw, tremendous performance). In his world, with its specific code of (Black) masculinity – tough, fearless and straight – Chiron doesn’t fit in. He’s nicknamed “Little” (a reference to his size, his timidity and maybe the size of his penis). His mother calls him “faggot”, a name he doesn’t even understand. This is his perceived identity, the way he is defined: Little. Cowardly. Faggot.
Into this shattered existence rides his knight in shining armor and the neighborhood drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali – best know from “the House of Cards” – in a defining performance). He’s a swaggering, confident figure of Black masculinity who, along with his partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, now in “Hidden Figures”) protectively takes Chiron into his home (an oasis of peace) and becomes a father figure of sorts. He offers Chiron both sage advice (to forge his own path in the world) and the tenderness this abused kid so desperately needs. There’s a tremendous scene in which Juan teaches Chiron how to swim (or, symbolically, how to give in to others as well as how to stand on his own two feet). This moment of gentle, parenting love is, in their joint worlds of aggression, pain and pretense, almost shockingly ordinary…simply a father taking care of his son.
This first movement ends with Chiron’s deepening sense of identity confusion. Is he a faggot (whatever that is; Juan tells him it’s “…a word used to make gay people feel bad”), and how is he to know? How can one, quasi, parent (Juan) who offers such gentle care be the source of such harm to his real parent, Paula? Where does the need to assert yourself and resist the definition of being “Little”, as he’s counseled by his only friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner) intersect with the advice to forge your own path? How do you emerge from how others define you to the definition you choose for yourself?
These questions find the beginnings of answers the time we meet Chiron again (now Ashton Sanders), several years later as a lanky adolescent. By then his isolation and silence have only increased. His mother’s addiction has further degenerated and the bullying taunts have only escalated. But with adolescence, his identity has shifted. The definition of “Little” can no longer contain his pent-up but repressed sense of self. Eventually, and only for a moment, Chiron, the real person, emerges in a moment of love and sexual catharsis with Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome). Two Black boys in love and making out under the cover of darkness. This catharsis is a violation of any acceptable Black man’s sense of self. But there is another, darker Chiron that also emerges: the one who, perhaps living up to his new nickname, “Black”, refuses to be intimidated by the class bully, who, in another catharsis, he beats the shit out of.
The final movement introduces us to the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes)…who ‘remains’ in hiding, having become his nickname, “Black”. He’s bulked up, confident, in charge and has assumed the identity of his father figure, Juan. Like Juan, he’s also a dealer (…and so the cycle continues). But in the end, the essence of who you are… the loves and the longings that bind… are deeper than the constructs you present of yourself. And for all his -newly acquired- tough, Black, he-man bravado, Chiron finally seems to acknowledge that his still repressed but genuine love for Kevin (now André Holland) and, despite it all, his mother, truly define his real sense of connectedness and self.
Little. Black. Faggot. Gay man. Loving son. Drug dealer. Ex con. Black man. Lover. They’re all Chiron. In the moonlight, perhaps though all identities are not the same, they appear to be the same colour.
This is a movie that’s note perfect. Every performance- and they are unaided by the helpful prop of (say, “Fence’s”) sparkling, articulate dialogue – resonates with an honesty, a kind of contained fury. In their silences, their macho inarticulateness, the characters express whole worlds of hurt and pain. Here is Black angst, the African-American (or British or European) condition, forever self-servingly defined by their White societies, laid bare. In “Moonlight”, Director/writer Barry Jenkins manages to give voice to the unvoiced terrors, the longings, the agonies so often bypassed, dismissed or turned into a cartoon (yet another Black drug dealer living in a world of prostitutes and cons) by the larger society.
The brilliance of the movie is that he has managed to invest in a single and very tangibly human character, so much more than the outward story of how people connect with each other; more the cri de coeur of an entire race.
MOONLIGHT: Dir: Barry Jenkins. With Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Alex Hibbert, Naomi Harris, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevane Rhodes. Cinematographer: James Laxton. Composer: Nicholas Britell (“The Big Short”)