Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes perform the trinity of essential passages in Chiron’s life in “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ Oscar Winning Best Picture for 2017. “Moonlight” explores Chiron’s trials of being clearly ‘different’ in place where heterosexual machismo is social currency. Navigating a world of hostile bullies, avoiding the wrath of living with a drug addled mother (Naomi Harris), “Moonlight” is a truly mesmerising and heartbreaking movie where your tears are the only salve for the credits rolling. Jenkins and story writer Tarell Alvin McCraney ask what makes a man in Miami, in the black community; and we watch Juan (Oscar Winner Mahershala Ali) provide Chiron a model, for better or worse, of a man that can survive.
“Moonlight” opens with a languid shot that smoothly sidles up to a street corner as Juan (Ali) cruises up to a street corner to observe his territory. In a managerial gesture Juan is visiting his boy on the corner, checking the state of the day’s business. It’s a cordial interaction and while Juan’s presence and stature doesn’t infer menace, his boy is clearly extremely respectful and fearful of his employer. Cruising back home he sees Little (Hibbert) running away from a group of kids that are calling him names. Little finds refuge in an abandoned apartment building that’s intermittently become a drug den, and barricades the door. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton create all the sweaty textures of Miami’s balmy nights and sweltering days and transform the ghetto locations into breathtaking sensory landscapes.
When Juan sees the kids hounding the apartment it catches his attention and he investigates. Little is grateful for the reprieve of an adult, but in his world is understandably sceptical about the prospect of the kindness of strangers. Despite the soiled walls and floor of the drug den; this is where Little meets the man that will provide the template for masculinity; there’s no point throughout Chiron’s journey where that setting is devoid of beauty.
Little is pure. He’s innocent and he’s beginning to be exposed to foundational acts that demonstrate sexual identity. Little’s journey is one of sensations. He’s constantly in a heightened state because the kids around him torment him. He’s withdrawn and ready for flight. In some brief scenes you see the young man dancing in class from the back of the studio and via a reflection. Jenkins is making it difficult for us to peer around the corners to catch a glimmer of who Little is becoming.
Mahershala Ali’s Juan is Chiron’s aspirational man. He’s an unlikely ambivalent role model for morality and values. He’s also a living emblem of machismo. His appearance, his adornment, his movement all mirrors that of his pristine Cadillac. Ali’s performance makes the mouth a portal to the character. The image that he’s created requires the intimidating grills, stoic and often lack of a smile. Once he encounters Little however, that ferocious manufactured snarl is substituted for a warm beaming grin. A defining moment for both characters is Juan taking Little to the beach, teaching him to swim with baptismal tenderness. It’s a moment that elevates Juan in Little’s mind as much as the audiences. Jenkins composes a sacred and intimate scene, the lens half submerged, effectively Juan’s arms.
Little can’t communicate with his mother; he recoils into his soft shell. Juan and his lady Teresa (the warm and charming Janelle Monáe) create the space to be open. In one surreal moment that feels like a family meeting Little tells Juan that he hates his mother. Juan replies, “Yeah, I bet you do.”
Little asks: “What’s a faggot?” Juan is taken aback. The look that echoes in Juan’s eyes is one of heartbreak and protective instinct. His response is delivered with dignity and care, as if he’s interrogating a younger version of himself in a way that he never received.
Time passes. Chiron (Sanders) is in a flux, a disorientating storm of adolescent feeling and activity. Juan is no longer in his life. His mother Paula is at the feverish height of her addiction and he continues to be a target of abuse. Ashton Sanders does a beautiful job of executing that adolescent exploration while being wholly aware of the consequences. When Chiron returns to the beach and is met by unexpectedly by Kevin, it further reinforces the importance of the ocean as refuge. A key dread-locked tormentor orchestrates a beating for Chiron and he and his crew descend on him like a shark to a bloody fish. Chiron refuses to bend, and is taken to breaking point.
Harris’ Paula has rationalised that she needs to ‘cure’ her queer son with tough love. In the early stages of Little she seems to be repulsed by him, at the depths of her addiction, she merely wants to exploit her older and compassionate boy. Her aversion to Chiron is devastating. It’s as if at the beginning of the film she’s ready to maintain a life skating between a job and the relief that comes with drugs. She’s a vacuum in Chiron’s early life, an open wound of shame. Harris’ performance is impressive and made more incredible for the fact that Jenkins only had the actor on set for mere days to craft this life spanning performance.
When we return to Chiron, he’s transformed into Black (Rhodes). Black is the armour shaped in the image of Juan. Trevante Rhodes’ is physically perfect, his body is the armour he built to be impervious to the world. He cures insomnia and an ongoing pain in his nose from the beating he received in high school with an almost continuous workout regime. Rhodes, now in Atlanta, lives a life as a dealer and lives a solitary life running his patch and draping himself with all the ‘Juan’ larger than life trimmings. The classic beast of a car comes with identical dashboard adornments; he mimics Juan’s style with the ‘do-rag,’ and the grills. We watch Black at peace with the pain his mother inflicted. She continues to be a part of his life. Late one evening when he receives a call, expecting that it’s going to be his mother pestering about a visit, it’s Kevin. Black is shaken and takes Kevin up on the offer for a diner meal together.
Kevin is a sign post throughout Chiron’s life. As a young man Kevin (Jaden Piner) is trying to bring into the circle and develop the willingness to stand-up to the bullying in an attempt to stop it. At 16, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has the most indelible impact on which Chiron becomes. Swagger guises uncertainty. They share the most beautiful moment and the most life altering moment in Chiron’s life in this period. As an older man Kevin (André Holland) piecing his life back together, thinking of Chiron in a former life. Holland’s eyes appraise and register the seismic shifts in the man in front of him as a result of their interactions. Their diner encounter in the final act of the film bears the immeasurable burden of a lifetime of things left unsaid.
Nicholas Brittell’s score is so inherent to the film’s success. It’s the kind of theme that doesn’t impose itself on the scenes. However, I’ve spent months listening to the score outside of the two times that I’ve seen the film, and each track conjures the energy of the wind. Those straining strings, paired with the baritone piano beat like a pulse, and in some tracks the sound of the ocean can be heard lapping. It’s the proof of life for the film.
The mastery of “Moonlight” is that when those final scenes are laid bare, so is the audience. We’ve been hurt, we’ve been crafting ourselves in an image that makes us invulnerable. The question is: are you ready to shed those layers and be rediscovered?
When you write about great films, you always feel like there’s more to say. For now, there’s one final thing I’ll say about “Moonlight,” it’s a classic, man.