Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.
As kids, we all say that but we know it’s not true. Name calling hurts. The little girl who is told she is fat starts to believe she is fat even if she’s not. The little boy who is called a “retard” starts to believe that he is slower on the uptake than his friends; that he’s incomplete. Being called a name changes who we are and how we see ourselves.
The film MOONLIGHT deals with the names others call us, and the names we end up calling ourselves, as seen through the eyes and experiences of Chiron, an African-American boy from the gritty, Liberty City neighbourhood of Miami, Florida. Told in three chapters at three crucial points in his life, MOONLIGHT takes us on a journey that very few films have done before – to see what it’s like to grow up poor, African-American and gay.
The story begins when Chiron (here played by Alex Hibbert) is just nine years old. Everyone calls him “Little” at this point because he’s meek and painfully shy. The bullies at his school also call him a homosexual slur, maybe because he’s a loner and doesn’t like the things that they like. At this point in Chiron’s life, he doesn’t know who or what he is. One day, after being chased into a deserted crack house by the other boys, he is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali, HIDDEN FIGURES), the local drug trafficker. Not knowing where Little lives, Juan ends up taking him back to his place hoping that his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, HIDDEN FIGURES), can get him to open up. Little, who has grown up without a father, doesn’t know how to relate to this big, strong black man but he does respond to Teresa’s kindness and the three them begin to form a surrogate family, much to the disapproval of Little’s emotionally abusive mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, COLLATERAL BEAUTY; SPECTRE), who has her own soul-piercing name for Juan.
In the second chapter, Little (now played by Ashton Sanders) is 16 years old and in high school. Lanky and wound up tighter than a two dollar watch, he’s now called Chiron by most people and he’s starting to understand who he is. The bullies still call him by other names though, making fun of his clothing and his mother, who has become a crack addict. His only friend, Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome), calls him “Black”, maybe because his skin is so dark in comparison to his own or perhaps Kevin is trying to give Chiron a bit of toughness that he sorely lacks. When Chiron and Kevin share a moment of intimacy one night on the beach, Chiron is left both thrilled and confused, but it’s an encounter with the bullies the next day that shifts his life in a completely different direction.
In the third chapter, it’s ten years later and Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) has become “Black”. He’s now a drug trafficker in Atlanta and, like Juan before him, not to be messed with. A late night phone call from Kevin (now played by André Holland, TV’s THE KNICK) brings back bittersweet memories for Black. After years of building up a suit of protective armour around his heart, he decides to return to Miami to face some of the people who hurt him a lifetime before. The outcome is not what he had expected.
Directed by Liberty City-native Barry Jenkins and based on the semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, MOONLIGHT is both tragic and tender, shedding light on the pressure to conform that gay African-American men face from inside their own community. As Little becomes Chiron and then Black, we see him continually tamp down his emotions and his vulnerability in favour of being tough and strong and masculine because that’s what his community expects of their men. He finally drops his guard and shows everyone including himself the real Chiron when the adult Kevin asks, “Who is you, Chiron?” Even with his hardened, macho exterior, all he ever wanted, and still wants, to have is a human connection.
There are so many wonderful performances in this film that it’s hard to know where to begin. Trevante Rhodes and André Holland are both outstanding in just the subtle ways they look at each other. If the film’s closing scene between Black and Kevin doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you are cold-hearted! Naomie Harris, who is the only actor to appear in all three chapters, is so compelling to watch, she makes it easy to forget that she is also the new “Moneypenny” in the James Bond franchise. In an interview with Variety last October, Harris said that because she had wanted to base her career choices on portraying positive images of black women, she had initially turned down this role. But when Jenkins explained to her that Paula is loosely based on both his and McCraney’s mothers, she changed her mind. Good thing she did because she’s been nominated for an Oscar® and rightly so.
Janelle Monáe, who impressed audiences and critics in HIDDEN FIGURES, racks up another memorable performance here. With Hollywood knocking on her door, she’s going to find it hard to go back to being a singer. The film’s star, though, is Mahershala Ali. Although he’s only seen in the film’s first chapter, he is brilliant in every scene, hinting that Juan may be not so different from Chiron. So much of the story is left to interpretation and speculation, and Juan’s life is just one piece that leaves us guessing at who he really is. Ali has also been rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar®, and I think he’s going to win.
When I had made my list of favourite films for 2016 a few months ago, I hadn’t seen MOONLIGHT so it wasn’t included. Had I seen it back then, it would have been on the top of the list. This film is simply a masterpiece!
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