'Moonlight' Is A Luminous Ode To A Turbulent Time And Place
By Andrea Thompson
Everything changes when you see events from an insider's perspective, even if those events are frequently depicted. Why else would “Moonlight” feel so daringly original?
The film tells the story of Chiron in three acts, where he is known by a different name in each. When we first see him as child in the first, he's known as Little and is already the subject of constant harassment and bullying. In the second, he's a skinny teenager called Chiron, vulnerably curled into himself and practically apologizing for his existence. In the third, he's as unrecognizable as he is familiar as a hardened Atlanta drug dealer who goes by the name Black.
It would be tempting to say that in each act he wrestles with who he is, but a more accurate statement would be he must try to accept and thus become who he really is, which won't be easy. Because in the rough 1980s Miami neighborhood that is his home, his budding sexuality is a source of revulsion to his peers. Even his own mother (Naomie Harris), a crack addict more concerned with getting high than taking care of her son, and doles out the emotional abuse accordingly, seems repulsed.
Ironically, Chiron finds safety and comfort with a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), whose home becomes a safe space from the chaos lurking just outside. However, it's his relationship with his best friend Kevin that may be what makes or breaks him.
In short, “Moonlight” is a story of a young black man growing up in a harsh neighborhood with an addict mother and an absent father. In other hands, this wouldn't even be a story, but a stereotype with various degrees of perniciousness. But in the hands of director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the theater piece “Moonlight” is based on, it's cinematic poetry birthed from the sea, where learning to swim is akin to a baptism.
Jenkins and McCraney never met growing up, but they're both from the same rough section of Miami and had mothers who were addicted to crack. Their city by no means suffers from a lack of screen time. However, this is not the hard-partying paradise of so many other depictions, a place awash in white powder and ruthless, darkly glamorous men in era-appropriate cars and threads. Rather, it's just a place where people live. The fact that seeing this location and the people who live in it from within feels so unique is a testament to how creatives like Jenkins and McCraney are so rarely allowed to tell their own stories.
And what a story it is, fueled by great writing, directing, and powerhouse performances, as one man's coming-of-age story becomes a deeply personal indictment of all the traps America still sets for some of its citizens. Poverty, race, lack of opportunity, the very explicit expectations of manhood; all of them are swirling around Chiron, waiting to drown him in a vicious cycle that threatens to go on in perpetuity. Aspects of Chiron's story may be universal, but the point of “Moonlight” is that it's also deeply specific, and probably will be for some time.