“At some point, you have to decide for yourself who you wanna be, can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” This quote encompasses the central theme of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-nominated film “Moonlight.”
The film is broken into three segments of protagonist Chiron’s life- i. Little, ii. Chiron and iii. Black. These are the identities he goes by. The parts are not only played by three separate actors, but they also serve as visual transcendence from curious childhood to somewhat emotionally stable adulthood.
“Moonlight” is a movie about growing up black, gay and impoverished in a rough neighborhood; it is also a movie about masculinity and the effects of the drug trade on communities. The real premise is one of self-discovery within an environment where you are quite different from those around you, and learning to be comfortable with those differences. Chiron is our ambassador to this lesson.
In i. Little, named after the nickname Chiron, is given due to his small size, we are introduced to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in middle school. Frantically trying to escape a flock of bullies, he holes up in an abandoned apartment where he is later found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) open their home to Chiron, which he uses as a sanctuary to escape the abuse he receives from his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a casual crack user at the film’s start.
Juan serves as Chiron’s male mentor figure, teaching him early on to create and follow his own path. During a beach trip Juan teaches Chiron how to swim in one fluid, peaceful orchestration. A scene at the breakfast table where Chiron learns that Juan is not only a drug dealer but selling drugs to Paula hits heavy as the chapter ends with Juan’s head hung in shame.
Chiron’s world is difficult to endure; this is shown best in ii. Chiron. Now 16 years old, he has put Juan’s advice into practice. Despite being bullied at school, and his inability to stay at home most nights due to his mother’s work as a prostitute to pay for drugs, we experience the truest form of Chiron. It is hinted throughout the film that Chiron may be gay, but his sexuality is only fully realized during a moonlit beach hangout with his childhood best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). What begins as a scene of experimentation leads to pure realization on the end of these two characters.
Occurring a decade later, iii. Black opens with a much more muscular and hardened Chiron riding around the streets of Atlanta. He heavily mirrors Juan at this stage of his life, as he has become a drug dealer, too. While his exterior has changed, he is still quiet, reserved and emotionally damaged from his past. A random phone call from Kevin leads to a sporadic visit from Chiron to the restaurant where he now works as a cook. The scene is awkward at first but turns into an account of what the old friends have been up to since their last meeting.
Jenkins provides a rather ambiguous ending to work with, but I think it fits the “make-it-what-you-want” attitude of “Moonlight.” I was a bit thrown off by how abruptly the ending crept up and felt it could have been led into in a more cohesive fashion.
Exceptional performances delivered from the cast, along with a vibrant art direction, make this movie a treat. A pink hue escaping the room behind Paula as she yells at Chiron in mute during a slow motion mid shot, which transitions into a shot of her expressionless son, is a scene of pure beauty and raw emotion. That, for me, put into perspective the personal feeling of the movie. You are not watching, but experiencing the struggles with Chiron.
“Moonlight” stands apart from other films about poor minorities living in destitute situations. It neither panders nor stereotypes, but rather asks the viewer to understand that Chiron’s situation is one lived by those in Liberty City, Miami. There is beauty in every frame of this movie, though it is one of traditionally ugly topics.