I took a long time to see Moonlight, which saddens me after finally watching director Barry Jenkins‘ Oscar-nominated film. When I stepped into O Cinema Wynwood with my girlfriend, I refrained from anticipating anything. I set the bar not high, nor low. I wanted to simply intake the pictures and sounds I’d see and hear on a modest-sized screen among several heartbeats in the theater.
I haven’t cried in a movie theater in almost half a decade. I sat there with tears in my eyes, emotion in my heart and, sometimes, disdain for those picking on young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert). Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale centering around, well, Chiron, a boy who lives in Liberty City, a neighborhood often times misunderstood due to its shootings and the presence of drugs. It’s an environment in Miami that can cause a young boy to act like a man at an age where most of us were living in comfortable environments and playing with toys.
Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) is split into three acts: i. Little, ii. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and iii. Black (Trevante Rhodes). The audience follows alongside Chiron’s growth, where he’s teased for being gay in a neighborhood where it’s frowned upon. From the initial scene, he’s being chased by a group of young boys, teasing him and shouting “faggot” as they threaten to hurt him. Young Chiron crawls between a fence and scurries into a crack house, where plywood substitutes windows and used crack pipes take the place of decor.
Alex R. Hibbert convinced me from the moment he displayed fear and confusion as he dodged rocks that were thrown at the crack house. Not long after the bullies left and Chiron uncovered his hands from his ears, Juan (Mahershala Ali) knocks, then tears down the plywood to enter the room.
Juan struggles to get a peep out of Chiron, who is obviously scared and shy. Chiron eventually leaves with Juan, and they arrive at Juan’s home. Still, not a word out of Chiron.
Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan’s girlfriend, tries her hardest to make the house welcoming and a direct contrast of the crack home Chiron found himself in for hours. Finally, our young warrior discovers his ounce of courage and speaks. Juan takes him home, where we’re introduced to Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s jittery and defensive mother who is addicted to crack.
Naomie Harris’ portrayal of a broken mother tugged on my heartstrings. The audience goes from hating Paula to feeling an odd sense of sympathy. Mahershala Ali may not have gotten lots of screen time, but his display of a drug dealer who, yes, is partly responsible for Paula’s addiction, makes his Oscar nomination well-deserved.
Then there’s the role of Kevin, whom I won’t get too much into detail due to spoilers. Kevin is seen as a youngster alongside Chrion (Jaden Piner), a high schooler (Jharrel Jerome) and grown man (André Holland). Once the film nears its end, let’s just say Holland begins to steal the show.
What I’m trying to say is each actor nails every second, minute and hour they’re in-frame. This and Silence are two films that have done a similar job of impacting me as I left the theater. Silence on a religious level, and Moonlight on a humane level.
Mahershala Ali said it best in his SAG Award speech:
I think what I’ve learned while working on Moonlight is, we see what happens when we persecute people. They fold into themselves.
I’m not going to spoil anything, but the quote applies to each act in the film. In one sequence, Juan is asked by young Chiron what the word “faggot” means. His explanation wasn’t typical of a drug dealer who looks to display toughness. His explanation was heartfelt and that of a drug dealer thinking, “Man, life comes at you quick.” Here’s a man who has made a living by selling narcotics. Now, he’s explaining to a child exploring his sexuality and someone he’s become a father figure to that the word is a terrible description for a gay person. If I recall correctly, he adds that the word is used to describe someone who’s gay, and that there’s nothing wrong if Chiron is gay.
There’s a charm to Moonlight I think films in 2016 didn’t have. There’s a homegrown feel that Jenkins brings to life, and actors, like Harris, that can bring audiences to tears. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with sadness, frustration and happiness throughout Chiron’s journey. Moonlight is simply beautiful and raised the bar for those wishing to film coming-of-age tales.
Moonlight is rated R and runs 1 hour and 51 minutes. The film released Nov. 18, 2016.