You might recall some of the furor surrounding last year’s
Oscars: the scarcity of
African-Americans either receiving awards or even any kind of recognition
for their work in the film world that year.
Host Chris Rock made jokes about “The White Oscars,” and The
Academy later promised to do better. “Moonlight”
is the kind of film that’s going to be noticed at the Oscars this year.
It’s a stunning American story of one man’s life, told from a
cultural perspective rarely represented on the big screen.
Chiron (played as a young boy by Alex Hibbert) is growing up in a
poor neighborhood outside of Miami. His
mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a junkie and a prostitute.
He’s never met his father. A
sensitive boy, at school he’s bullied unmercifully for being a
“faggot” (he has to ask someone what that word means).
One afternoon, while he’s hiding from the bullies, he meets Juan
(Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, whose heart is so stirred by this
little lost boy who will barely speak that he takes him home, where his
significant other, Teresa (Janelle Monae) is also inclined to be kind to
Chiron, whose nickname is “Little.”
Though it doesn’t take long for Chiron to figure out that the
drugs his mother takes may well come from Juan’s supplier, still, he
finds the kindness and safety at Juan and Teresa’s irresistible.
His mother is upset by his absences, but also shakes him down for
spare change for her fix. We
get the feeling that something bad is going to happen soon.
But it’s not quite what we envisioned.
Now a teenager, Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders) is still bullied
by the same merciless thugs at school, but at least he has made one
friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). One
night on the beach they share a tender, sensual moment that makes a deep
impression on Chiron, who doesn’t even mind that Kevin calls him
“Black.” Juan has
disappeared (presumably dead or in imprisoned), and Paula is still a
junkie, though Teresa still welcomes him at her home.
But Chiron has now developed so much inner rage about the bullying
that one day at school he fights back:
with a chair to the back of the head of the leader, in the
classroom in front of the teacher and all the other students.
We see Chiron led away in the police car, presumably being booked
for aggravated assault.
Another interlude of a passing decade.
Now Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) is an adult, riding around
in his “ghetto” sedan that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one
Juan used to ride. He wears a “grill” (gold teeth that he removes when
he eats, so it’s just part of the role he’s playing).
Yes, he’s now a drug dealer himself, in Atlanta.
One day, out of the blue, he receives a call from Kevin (now played
by Andre Holland), who invites him to come visit him at his restaurant.
Chiron, having never forgotten that one moment of intimacy on the
beach as a teenager (and having not experienced that kind of connection
since), journeys back home, where he finds his Mom in some sort of rehab
facility, now all contrite about how she neglected him as a child.
Chiron (who now calls himself “Black”) is moved to tears,
despite himself, because at least his Mom professes her love for him,
which he so rarely heard her say when he was Little.
And now Kevin, after proudly showing Chiron a picture of his kid,
appears to still feel some affection for him, as well.
And Chiron’s joyless world starts to feel a lot different.
The dialogue is at times hard to understand, partly because of the
garbled sound, partly because of all the interspersed street slang.
There are long moments where nothing really happens (I think
we’re supposed to be feeling emotional identification with the
characters). Director and
writer Barry Jenkins risks a lot by having three different actors play the
same character at different ages. And
moments of happiness are rare and fleeting for anyone.
And yet, this is a powerful portrayal of the American experience
from a perspective we rarely see, presented with such searing honesty that
we blink and gulp in amazement at what we’re watching.
Now that’s a unique moviegoing experience.