By Michael Bailey
Special to the Chronicle
American film director Barry Jenkins crafts a beautiful yet creatively true Academy Award-winning bildungsroman of Chiron, a young, gay black man living and growing up in Liberty City, Florida.
Taken as concept from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron. We are presented with three distinct chapters – each critical to Chiron’s development as a “man.” What makes this movie so special is that despite being a “LGBT” film as most people and critics say, sexuality doesn’t define this film or any character within the film. The main theme and question of this movie that it directly addresses is: What does it mean to be masculine in the black community?
In the first chapter, “Little,” we are shown Chiron as a child, nicknamed “Little” and played by Alex Hibbert, running away from bullies in a poverty stricken and drug-ridden Liberty City. Little breaks into an abandoned ramshackle of a house and starts crying as the kids throw rocks through the windows, letting a plethora of homophobic slurs through. Saving him from this bullying, Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, takes him to his house as a sort of safe haven.
There is something so intimate and pure about Hibbert’s performance in this movie. It isn’t the words that he says that make us listen, but the words he doesn’t say. Although he has barely any lines, his eyes give us all the emotional understanding we need.
After being returned home to his crackhead mother, Little runs back to Juan’s house for safety. It is in this moment that Little breaks his silence to Juan and Juan’s wife, Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe, and asks them: “What is a faggot?” and “Am I one?”
Juan and Teresa, caught off guard by this statement, comfort him by saying it’s a derogatory term and in time he will know the meaning. In the subsequent scene, Juan teaches Little how to swim in the ocean. He says to him that “we are in the middle of the world” and relaxes him so he floats, thus stopping his flailing. After the lesson, they both share an intimate moment on the beach as Juan talks about his childhood.
In the next chapter, “Chiron,” we are presented with teen Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, who is coming into the idea of male masculinity. He is juxtaposed with the bullies who are so aptly dressed in the stereotypical “thug” clothing. It is in this chapter that we see Chiron’s sexual awakening on the shore of the beach with his best friend Kevin.
This love has blossomed between them – only to be broken when Kevin beats him up in order to be initiated in the gang at school. Retaliating, Chiron breaks a chair over a bully’s head causing the bully to pass out. He is arrested and the scene ends with Kevin looking hopelessly into Chiron’s eyes as he is driven away.
In the third and final chapter, “Black,” Chiron is a full-blown adult and encapsulates the idea of male masculinity in the black community.
Despite this new realization of himself, you can tell he is unhappy – the adult Chiron still has the same scared and vulnerable eyes. He reconciles with his crack addicted mother who apologies for not being there for him. Later in the day, he gets a call from Kevin – who has become an adult but regressed in the idea of male masculinity (a distinction so significant and so poignantly subtle).
Kevin invites Chiron to his restaurant. Chiron goes on the journey to the restaurant admitting to himself he still loves Kevin (verified by a sexual dream about him earlier in the morning). He arrives at the restaurant and they both share a moment with each other. “Who are you Chiron? That ain’t you,” Kevin asks him as Chiron is eating the chef’s special. The scene fades with them going to Kevin’s house and Chiron admitting to him “he was the only man he has been with.” The film ends with the two men holding each other, lovingly embracing one another.
“Moonlight” is perfect in its creation – expertly combining cinematography, music and script – creating a brilliant film for its universality and pure catharsis. I recommend this film to anyone and to everyone because this is the reason why we create films: to show the condition of the human heart and the human experience.