Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome
While many have been outspoken about what’s like to be a black in contemporary America, filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ story Moonlight talks much more than just that. It emphasizes on drug abuse, sexuality, poverty and how difficult is to stand tall while dealing with all of these issues.
At the special screening at the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival held on February 7, 2017, Moonlight gave the audience a lot to think about. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film follows the life of a man in three key stages. The film begins with a nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) running on the streets of Miami as he is chased by his peers. Addressed by the name ‘Little’ by his bullies, he grabs the attention of a local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) who comes to aid him. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) eventually get closer to him while his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse with drug addiction, alternates between being an affectionate mother and cruel one. Chiron gets a mentor and father figure in Juan who teaches him to swim and gives an insight on to accept oneself.
The second chapter is about Chiron (Ashton Sanders) a skinny teenager struggling through high school years with his sexuality. Every now and then, he gets bullied and threatened by his school mates who are all about gay bashing. Chiron best mate Kevin turns out to be a bisexual male in the closet. Teenager Chiron is still closer to Teresa who treats him like his own son while his mother still struggles with drug addiction. One brutal incident in his teenage life changes everything that’s coming for him in the third chapter.
The third chapter is about a grown up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) who has completely built himself like a street gladiator still trying to hide his sexuality. The diamond earrings and gold grillz, at first, it’s hard to recognize Chiron but eventually, his vulnerable side comes in the picture which resonates with the audience. Known as “Black,” the name his school best mate Kevin gave him, Chiron now has his own mini-drug empire in Atlanta. This chapter about his grown up life is dealt with so much maturity.
Mahersala Ali as Juan maybe just a supporting actor but he brings a fresh take on a role like that of a drug dealer. The empathy and compassion he carries for people especially Chiron proves why he has won all the awards, lately. “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be.” When he says this to young boy Chiron, it pretty much portrays what kind of man he his despite his business.
All the three actors who play Chiron have their own stories to tell but there’s one thing has still remained in their stories is their honesty. Alex is a coy, shy boy dealing with getting bullied while teenage Chiron played by newcomer Ashton Sanders has a tale to tell why it is difficult to come out in a black community. His transition from an afraid teenager to the guy who vents out anger to stop these bullies is so realistic that it hits you right in the feels. Trevante Rhodes’ Chiron is more of a mature one but the vulnerable side to his character is touching.
Naomie Harris as Paula is brilliant. A mother with a gay son dealing with drug addiction and going crazy day by day is not usually seen on big screen. This is, by far, her best performance after 28 Days Later. With Janelle Monae’s second film which is nominated for the Oscars 2017, her performance as Terresa is heartwarming and full of love. Jharrel Jerome playing teenage Kevin and André Holland the older Kevin, both of them offer different takes on their roles. One who is not okay to be out while the grown up one is fine with it.
Director Barry Jenkins, associated with 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, has created a cinematic poetry about Chiron dealing with loneliness and what does it mean to grow up as a black gay man?
Moonlight may not be everyone’s cup of tea but is an important film. The audience should be encouraged to give it a watch. It is a profoundly moving film which is still and will be relevant in the coming years. The rawness with emotional touch makes you feel everything. It is nominated for 8 Academy Awards this year and one can understand why so.