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.

Questions for Discussion:

1)                   In the State of Texas there is currently a furor over the failure of CPS to even check up on thousands of potentially vulnerable children, because of underfunding and understaffing.  How do we do better in looking after the Chirons around us?

2)                  What is the first moment of sensual intimacy that you remember?  What impact did it have on you at the time?  What impact does it still have on you?

3)                  What relationships in your life seem to remain important even through changing circumstances?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association