‘Moonlight’ poetically gives voice to gay black experience
By Kaely Monahan
“Moonlight” is a quiet film, just like its protagonist. It invites you into the most intimate of settings: the mind of a young, black gay boy. It follows his story through adulthood. Yet for all its watercolor delicacy, "Moonlight" is a movie about strength and what defines it.
In simple terms, the film is about this poor, black gay boy growing in a ghetto neighborhood in Florida. There are drugs, bullying and even glimmers of gangs, but the film is not categorized by any of those things. Rather, it is simply the stage wherein bigger life questions are asked.
“Moonlight” could have very easily gone completely wrong. It could have fallen into cliché and stereotyping on so many levels, from race to underprivileged America to the minority gay experience. But writer and director Barry Jenkins avoids all the pitfalls by choosing instead a hero whose strength lies in introspective quiet. The lead, Chiron may be a man of few words, but he is far from silent. Instead, his life is seen through the hardships around him and his reserve, at times, seems more defiant than meek.
Set up in three acts, Chiron, is played first by young Alex Hibbert. Through his eyes, we meet a young boy who doesn’t fit in and desperately wants to. Bullied by his peers, slowly disregarded by his mother, he finds solace and stability in another wealthier black family. Which, as it turns out, is affluent because the head of the house is a drug seller. Teenage Chiron is played by a gangly Ashton Sanders who beautifully embodies the awkward stage of teenagehood. From learning how to stand up for himself to discovering his sexual awakening, Sanders lends a vulnerability to Chiron that is wholly believable.
Finally, adult Chiron is played by a brooding and intensely introvert Trevante Rhodes. This Chiron is not what we would have expected from such a reserved boy. Having spent some years in prison and now a drug dealer himself, the man seems at odds with his true self--yet he challenges anyone to say he should be otherwise.
Chiron is powerfully quiet and everything is internalized. It is not a simple part to play as the character’s thoughts are completely evoked through action and cinematography. Young Hibbert makes you want to reach out and hold him. Wide-eyed, scared but also rebellious, young Chiron is reminiscent of any young boy. And that is part of the film's success. At each stage of Chiron's life, he feels real. You forget you're watching a movie and get lost in the story.
"Moonlight" addresses the usual tenants of a growing of age film but also challenges them. What does it mean to be a black kid growing up in the ghetto? What is homophobia? What does it mean to be a strong man? What is friendship and can it survive betrayal? Director-writer Jenkins also flips around the stereotypes, playing with ideas of what the gay experience is; who drug dealers are; and how to find yourself.