by Alan Yudman
MOONLIGHT is something of a biopic. It examines the life of a boy who has grown up in Miami. Chiron is poor, his mother is a crack addict. When we first meet him he is about 10 or so. He is so small, other kids call him “Little”. He mostly has to fend for himself, yet when he doesn’t come home at night mother is angry with him. In the next stage of his life we see Chiron in high school, probably a sophomore or junior. He is still small, rail thin. He continues to be picked on by the other boys, but he has one friend, Kevin. And he is exploring his identity as a young gay man. Then in the final third, we see Chiron as a young man. He is not small anymore, he is buff, fit and he is pimping and fronting.
Chiron’s story is most likely one of a hundred or a thousand young black men across the country. Single parent home, bullied and ignored. His only role model as a child is a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan advises him, teaches him what he needs to know to be a man. Chiron is also unsure about his sexuality, but Juan tells him he has time to figure that out.
In his high school years, Chiron is more sure of himself, takes less shit. But he is still a target for bullies. His mother (Naomie Harris) is farther down the rabbit hole of crack addiction and alternately bullies her son and loves him. Chiron is still “taken care of” by Juan and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). It is really the only love he gets. He explores his homosexuality with his friend Kevin, but Kevin turns on him. That leads to a beating, and Chiron has had enough and lashes out in the only way he knows.. by hitting his abuser with a chair.
That leads us to the final part of the film, where Chiron is a pimp (sorry if I got that wrong, it’s not entirely clear what illegal activity he is engaged in) in Atlanta. Doing time in juvenile hall has taught him to be harder, tougher.. to be “Black”. But when his old friend Kevin calls him one night you can see he is still the sensitive child he was. He longs for Kevin and drives to Miami to see him.
This little film gives the viewer insight into how it must be for a young black man who is also gay. It is a brutal existence that is mostly unforgiving. But Chiron never loses his heart or his innocence. The story is wonderful, but the acting is everything here. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris give Academy Award worth performances. They both care for Chiron in their own ways. The performances are moving and powerful. The actors who portray Chiron throughout the years are also wonderful. Alex R. Hibbert is “Little”, Ashton Sanders is “Chiron” and Trevante Rhodes is “Black”. The are all outstanding but Sanders and Rhodes are stellar as the tormented “Chiron” and the hard, yet still sensitive “Black”.
The score is fantastic (I am listening to it as I write this). It is subtle and moving and adds tension or kindness at the absolutely right places.
Barry Jenkins adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s largely autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” and did a wonderful job with it. Jenkins direction is perfect in tone and execution. He frames the scenes perfectly to exude the right feeling at the right time. It is masterful.
MOONLIGHT is a great film. One of the best I’ve seen this year. It has received numerous awards already and if the Academy can get past its own biases and inhibitions it might win Best Picture.
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