Our monochromatic little community has traditionally not been kind to films about black urban culture. Jeff, a long time employee, and I once examined a few years’ worth of Avalon/Darkside box office reports. We grouped them by dominant racial culture and stratified them by box office gross. By far, the poorest performing films have been movies about black urban culture. Our community isn’t terribly enamored with gay male oriented films, either.
This is a film about a young black man grappling with his identity while immersed in a culture that isn’t helping much. Personal identity issues are the main course of cinematic storytelling. Added cultural conflict is the spice. In Moonlight, we see that neither of these issues are limited to the black urban experience. These same issues can play out on a sheep ranch in Montana or a small college town in Oregon.
Three different actors portray the lead character in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes portray him as the frightened little boy who becomes a shy high schooler and then a muscle-bound ex-con.
“What is a faggot?” Little asks Juan.
Mahershala Ali is Juan, a Cuban street dealer who doesn’t miss the connection between the drugs he sells and the toll it takes on his humanity. (Ali might be remembered from House of Cards where he played Remi, a well-dressed power lobbyist.) Juan takes a frightened, fatherless Little and speaks to him about ways of thinking and being that are greater than Little is able to learn from his home life. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take in Little when his drug addict mom fails him with sad regularity.
“Faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan answers.
When Little explodes into adolescence as Chiron, we see a skinny awkward teenager moving through a high school experience that isn’t exclusive to any race. He is bullied and finds friendships, while trying to declare himself as an individual. Life with his mom degrades as her drug use increases and Chiron takes refuge in Juan and Teresa’s spare bedroom. This is the only really stable home he’s known.
When we skip ahead ten years we see the gangly teenage Chiron has become the prison-bulked Black, working the streets. Getting through his day like Juan used to do. He keeps his words and feelings close to his chest until a random phone call sends him to Miami to eat dinner with an old high school friend.
Many Hollywood movies about African-Americans tend to be in-your-face about white privilege. This movie presents both the gay and black experience, but it does so without shaming those who are not. The camera work moves us into this world, not through it. We are not asked to do any more than watch the story unfold. This allows the viewer to become involved in the emotional thread sewn perfectly throughout this film.
The dialogue in Moonlight is sparse. Not a word is wasted. The words that are used make us believe that the failure to see beyond the stereotypes perpetuated (often by the characters themselves) excludes us from a rich culture; one we can only catch a glimpse of if we understand what Juan tells Little. “Black people are everywhere. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. We were the first ones on this planet.”
When you look up the award nominations for Moonlight, you will have to scroll across three pages to see them all. It is favored for Academy Award Nominations. This is one of the finest movies of the year and made with a budget of less that $5 million. To pull off something this amazing with so little funding proves there is a lot of love in this work of art. There is magic here. This is not a marketing coup or dumb luck. This is story and performances and cinematography and soundtrack brought together to create a profound and profoundly rewarding movie experience.
If you like Moonlight, there is a film set in a Baltimore urban school that addresses some of these issues from a girl’s point of view. The Fits is also worth checking out.