Sunday, November 20, 2016
The word "normalize" has been much in play in our cultural conversation lately, whether in reference to gross personal behavior, extreme political views, or the idea that the way many of us get our news may have swayed a Presidential election. In this heightened context to normalize is a bad thing - but if the new film Moonlight helps normalize the idea of complicated black masculinity in cinema then it will have done us an incalculable service. Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins (from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney), is a gorgeous surprise and of the year's most vital American films. Jenkins breaks the story into three chapters, starting with the chance meeting of a Miami drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali in a star making performance) and young boy called Little (Alex Hibbert). There is a sense in which Little, and the man he will become, is the character we most need to see on screen in 2016 - a year when black Americans felt themselves under siege by civil institutions in a way they perhaps haven't for decades. Little, whose real name is Chiron, is on the run from bullies when we meet him and Juan offers him a meal and ride home with a quick stop to introduce Little to his warm girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Little's mother (Naomie Harris) isn't thrilled with Juan, especially when Juan catches her using drugs on the street. The rest of Moonlight is the struggle that these adults will have for Little's soul.
This opening section of a Moonlight is a beautifully shot film about childhood. Jenkins keeps his camera at Little's level so that we perceive every sensation just as Little takes it in, from a first time at the beach with Juan to the menacing stares of other boys during a game of keep away. The way the boys look at Little isn't just a function of their horseplay; they perceive something in him that won't manifest itself until later. Little's mother perceives the same thing, and this contempt for his weakness combined with her descent into addiction makes home the least safe place in Little's life. Jump forward a few years and the teenager before us, now called Chiron again, is played by Ashton Sanders. Chiron's life is one of piercing loneliness: there are more bullies, and a mother lost to drugs, and no helpful adults. Ashton Sanders has marvelous, expressive eyes and he says more with them about what's in Chiron's heart than his few lines of dialogue ever could. Chiron's only connection is with his friend Kevin (played in this section by Jharrel Jerome). The sex act the two young men share is the moment in Moonlight when Chiron is most fully himself with another person, but Chiron also knows that it sets him apart from the loud, rough, "normal" teens who beat him up. Jenkins handles this moment with the same delicacy he displays throughout, avoiding any hint of sentiment of preachiness and viewing the moment for what it is: a fork in the road of a human life.
In the final section of Moonlight Chiron is known as "Black" and is played by Trevante Rhodes. An act of violence has set Black on a course to end up like Juan just as Kevin (played here by Andre Holland) reenters Black's life with a phone call. Much is left unsaid in the long scene of Black and Kevin's reunion; there's an awkward mix of happiness, nervousness, and attraction that Jenkins wisely doesn't get in the way of. There is a wobbly moment where Black chooses words over actions where Rhodes is slightly stiff, but Jenkins doesn't make too much of it and is smart enough to know that an easy resolution to this story would ring false. The end of Moonlight brings Black to the doorstep of a richer and more complicated life, one that will have made the journey worth it.