We all remember the moment. During the 89th Academy Awards in 2017, one of the most polarizing moments in television history unfolded before our eyes. Presenters Fay Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced La La Land as the winner for Best Picture. But as it turned out, it was not the actual winner. With the mistake realized, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz grabbed the microphone along with the world’s attention and announced: “Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.” Afterward, an ocean of black actors, producers, and filmmakers eagerly stepped on-stage to bask at the moment that almost was not theirs.
However, that controversy pales in comparison to moments within the film itself. After all, there are countless moments that detail the plights of black and brown members of the LGBTQ community. Born and raised in a black family, I understand that being gay is still very taboo in some African American homes. Strong belief in God and the teachings of the Bible can lead several to view homosexuality as a sin. With this in mind, many young black men and women struggle to find and embrace their identity in fear of repercussions. As such, it is all the more impressive to know that Moonlight is perhaps the definitive film to bring that struggle to the forefront.
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight creatively presents the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of one Chiron Harris. So throughout the film, three different and extraordinary actors play Chiron. Trevante Rhodes plays adult Chiron, Ashton Sanders portrays teenage Chiron, and Alex Hibbert is a very young Chiron aka “Little”. The ability to walk alongside a young man as he grows and navigates the world around him is a unique viewing experience.
In the film’s first chapter, “Little”, Moonlight details the bond built on trust between Chiron and Mahershala Ali’s Juan (Mahershala Ali). With the help of Teresa (Janelle Monáe), they become nurturing caregivers right when Chiron feels most alone. The tattered relationship between Chiron and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) becomes evident immediately once she enters the scene. He spends moments with his mother quiet, reserved, and seeking an outlet. Ultimately, the film highlights a young man’s struggle with identity after Juan finds Paula in a crackhouse.
The altercation leads to Chiron revealing his hatred for his mother and asks Juan what the word “f****t” means. This is the first time Chiron discusses his sexuality and Juan tells Chiron there is nothing wrong with being gay and that he should not allow others to mock him. The importance of positive male figures plays a key role in Moonlight. Between his best friend Kevin and Juan, young Chiron feels camaraderie and acceptance, two things he’s lacked previously. This especially comes into play in perhaps the film’s most memorable sequence when Juan teaches Chiron to swim. In this one scene, the movie becomes a visceral depiction of the formation of trust.
The second chapter of Moonlight, “Chiron”, begins with a teenage Chiron constantly at the mercy of violent high school bullies. However, Chiron’s relationship with Teresa proves to be a positive force of pride in his life. Juan’s death occurred years earlier but when Chiron needs a place to stay, Teresa welcomes him with open arms. Paula’s drug addiction causes her mental health to deteriorate as she steals the money given to him by Teresa. In comparison, Teresa provides love, understanding, and compassion to Chiron whenever he needs it. These characteristics are vital to the film’s narrative and act as physical embodiments of the light and the dark surrounding black youth as they grow up in America.
While Chiron seeks solace on a Miami beach, his childhood best friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) enters the scene. Chiron’s journey of sexual self-exploration moves forward when he and Kevin share a kiss and engage in surprising sexual activity on the beach. In America, black people who identify as LGBTQ+ are often the target of hateful assaults. True numbers of gay people in these communities may never be known. So to see this scene play out in such a nuanced tender way feels genuinely liberating. It would be easy for the film to portray this with heavy-handed visual and sound cues. But since director Barry Jenkins clearly wants to humanize everyone on screen, the scene is instead beautiful in its minimalism.
Of course, Chiron and Kevin still live in fear and misunderstanding, so they remain closeted. This is highlighted when Chiron’s bully peer pressures Kevin to punch him the following day. What happens next serves as the film’s catalyst. Chiron feels empowered for perhaps the first time in his life. He charges into class, wields a chair, and beats the bully with it, leading to his first arrest. With this, the film conveys that empowerment can change a former victim into a heroic figure.
This brings us to Moonlight‘s third chapter, “Black”, where Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is now a big, strong, confident man in Atlanta. He adopts the nickname “Black” and begins dealing drugs. One night, he receives an unexpected call from Kevin (now played by André Holland). Now working as a chef in a diner, Kevin apologizes and invites Chiron to reunite if he ever returns to Miami. Additionally, Paula now lives in a drug treatment center seeking help for her addiction. During a visit, Paula and Chiron go through a moment shared by men and women in real life all over the world. She breaks down in front of her son and expresses love for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. The viewer lives through a meaningful moment of closure for Chiron.
Once Chiron reunites with Kevin, Kevin reveals that he now has a son with an ex-girlfriend. In a moment of pure, unadulterated emotion, Chiron reveals his work as a drug dealer. Trevante Rhodes was able to emote some powerful things through his dialect and facial expressions. His ability to be vulnerable to someone he used to trust feels real. It feels empowering. The film’s final moments allow that vulnerability to come to life. For the first time in a long time, Chiron is comforted and taken care of and revisits the memory of him by the sea as a child.
Director Barry Jenkins delivers one of the most prolific films in modern-day cinematic history. The supporting ensemble cast submits powerful performances beside Rhodes, Sanders, and Hibbert, strengthening the narrative. Thanks to the efforts of Harris, Holland, Ali, and Monáe, moviegoers are able to relate to the characters and place themselves in this environment. It gives the viewer the chance to express themselves through the art they are witnessing. While the film earned praise from fans and critics across the board, it sits atop as the most visible LGBTQ+ film set in an all-black environment. Every black story should be told similarly to Moonlight. With a visceral goal to cause a reaction from the community, it hopes to positively affect. – Christian Hubbard
Moonlight is now available for purchase on blu ray and digital platforms and currently streaming on Netflix. The film stars Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali.
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