It’s hard to put down in words the experience of seeing Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. It is, simply stating, a groundbreaking film. It amazingly gets under your skin and never lets go. From the first scene to last, it stays raw and thoughtful. Adapting Tarell Alvin’s play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the director encapsulates several socially verboten issues through the story of its protagonist in three acts, with each act depicting different stages of his life.
The first act introduces us to the introvert, confounded kid Chiron (Alex Hibbert). Chiron is unaware of his sexuality. He makes light of the slights and insults at school. His single mother, a drug addict, Paula (Naomie Harris) who works as a nurse can see her son’s dissimilar behavior but is totally ignorant and a milksop in taking a stand for him. The closest her kid bonds with is Juan (a drug-seller played by Mahershala Ali, who rescues him from his bullying school gang one day) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae).
Both Juan and Teresa try to open up the mostly quiet Chiron. Juan teaches him how to swim to make him realize the priceless feeling of being liberal. Experiencing an unshackled relationship for the first time, Chiron develops a strong bond with them. But Paula disapproves this newly formed relation. She refuses taking help of a drug dealer.
Cut to act two. Chiron, now a sixteen-year old teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) is skinny and even more reticent. Juan-Teresa’s home still remains his comfort zone but there is no safety from the persistent gay-bashing at school. Chiron finds a door of acceptance in the form of his old chap Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who shows signs of similar sexuality in a consoling scene at a moonlit beach.
But the affection wears off quickly as he forcefully beats Chiron at school under the influence of the daily oppressors. Things take a drastic turn as Chiron loses his temper and his unsuitable retaliation lands him in prison.
The third act, which begins after the jail incident, is appalling. Chiron is now a grown up man (played by Trevante Rhodes) but embodies the same vulnerability. But to our dread, he is no more the virtuous guy he was. Like Juan, he is now a drug dealer and runs what seems like an even bigger and successful business, albeit in a different city (Miami). His life functions monotonously until one day he gets a call from his best friend which compels him to pay a visit back home.
What happens afterwards mustn’t be spoiled. It’s one of the most original endings ever written. But what must be pointed out is that Barry Jenkins delivers a masterpiece. From the writing, editing, sound design to the cinematography and the standout casting, everything is pitch perfect. All three actors who portrayed Chiron are excellent, with each one getting a memorable scene in their respective acts.
We can say the same of the supporting cast. While Mahershala Ali is outstanding in his brief role, Naomie Harris gives a stirring performance. Her one particular scene with Trevante Rhodes where she is old and tired, sick of taking drugs and ultimately realizes how she spoiled her child’s life is heartbreaking. In spite of playing an extensively dislikable character, she wins our appreciation for her acting prowess.
Jenkins coherently infuses themes of drugs, poverty, racism and intolerance in the core plot of self-discovery and sexual identity. It’s easy to relate to Chiron’s world and therein lies the filmmaker’s biggest achievement. One can easily see the world through Chiron’s eyes and comprehend the fight that is to overcome insurmountable hurdles in life.
There is a moment in the film where the protagonist asks “What’s a faggot?” “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad,” he’s told.
Like him, there are millions of confused, frightened gay people in the world who are victims of heterosexism and violence. The film understands their concerns with utmost earnestness. Moonlight is a courageous attempt in highlighting their everyday struggles as much it serves as a reminder for us, the audience, to be more accepting of them. For this reason alone, the film is a must-watch. Watch it with an open mind.
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