What’s it like to be a young boy on the drug-filled streets of Miami without friends, without family, without hope? As cliques begin to feign superiority by ganging up on the weak to prove themselves hard enough for what’s coming, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) — or “Little” as they call him — can do nothing but struggle to survive. So who would have thought the one man to show kindness would be the king of the very drug holes his bullies seek to rise up within? In a city where masculinity is cracking skulls, calling names, and pulling guns, Juan (Mahershala Ali) gives a sweet smile and helping hand to a runt in need. This isn’t a play for recruitment either. It’s a beautifully honest moment of human compassion.
It’s not the only display of inclusion shone to Chiron during Barry Jenkins‘ triptych through time entitled Moonlight. Just a few years later the now teenage boy (played by Ashton Sanders)—who rejects his former nickname—is perhaps more lost than ever. Still picked on in school, neglected at home thanks to a junkie for a mother (Naomie Harris‘ Paula), and unable to stand his ground with an identity in constant flux, life provides a friend. Also caught between two worlds, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) hacks adolescence by constantly changing into the person that those he comes in contact with want. He can be himself around Chiron, supplying a glimmer of hope. But depending on who approaches next, it can all fall apart in the blink of an eye.
How Chiron handles this dual-faceted dynamic of growing up around a dog-eat-dog mentality he doesn’t share will place him on a path towards an adulthood he may never have believed possible. That could be good or bad; his actions fed by either the kindness of Juan and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe) or the temper and frustration ignited by an absentee mom alongside a revolving door of bullies. He can remain the sweet, confused Chiron we’ve met from the start that has trouble looking people in the eyes or opening himself up to utter three words let alone something deeply personal. Or he can adopt the nickname “Black” that Kevin affectionately lays upon him to start over as a man who demands respect out fear rather than love.
Adapted from a Tarell McCraney play — who, like Jenkins, grew up in a similarly poor part of Miami — Moonlight is a quietly introspective depiction steeped in unparalleled honesty of the ways in which we’re saved and damned throughout our lives. It’s also a portrayal of life’s circuitous nature with unwitting role models projecting an image for the next generation to aspire towards and copy despite not necessarily being representative of who they are beneath its artificial veneer. There’s no better contradiction to introduce this phenomenon than Ali’s Juan: crown on the dashboard, cigarette in mouth, and swagger from head-to-toe. He shows an employee firm-handed stoicism with but a hint of appreciation for a job well done. Jenkins wants us to profile him so he may prove us wrong.
We’re given two initial stereotypes: Juan’s confident gangster exterior cultivated to keep his men in line and enemies at bay alongside Little’s tragic nine-year old consumed by a reality placing him on the bottom of a vicious food chain wherein flight becomes the only option for escape. Jenkins is providing us surfaces to accept and judge before ripping them away to expose a resonate complexity beyond racially charged cliché. Suddenly Juan is offering assistance, jovially ribbing on this kid hiding in the darkness of an abandoned building. He isn’t angry or false in the opportunistic way kingpins are usually portrayed as when bringing someone under their wing. He’s merely offering breakfast and a ride home, cognizant his future may have been different if someone offered him the same.
This one gesture has the potential to alter Little’s life. But before we can examine what that process entails, Juan must first release the boy from the fabricated notions we’ve constructed around him. Little isn’t afraid as much as enraged. He’s only nine and yet raising himself without a stable figure to emulate or steer him through the perilous journey of being young. The abuse he receives on the playground is nothing compared to the psychological damage wrought at home. He’s getting pummeled on all fronts, isolation his one salvation despite being brief and uncommon. This unavoidable rage built a mistrust that renders friendships nonexistent and hope a forgotten word. Juan and Kevin prove possible exceptions, two beacons of empathetic light to appreciate within the vacuum of uncertainty.
Part One is rife with depictions of dominance: Juan over his employees, bullies over Little, and narcotics over Paula. Masculinity is tested as sex, hypocrisy, and strength are used to wield power over the weak (Little) and the mighty (Juan). Dialogue exposes the potency of words and feelings in their ability to create and destroy. Boys start lobbing homophobic slurs at Little, names he acknowledges as pejorative in the way they’re used despite not understanding their meaning. Does his sensitivity make him less than them? Does it mean he’s gay? Who are they to punish him besides a group of insecure babies lashing out from fear of being the next one excluded as the “other”? What is more macho: violence or sympathy? Can sensitivity and masculinity effectively coexist?
Part Two sees Chiron at a crucial turning point pitting maturity against superiority; Part Three the aftermath of a rebirth proving some truths cannot be erased. When you look at Trevante Rhodes‘ performance in the latter you can see everyone that came before: Juan’s confidence and veiled compassion, Little’s bullish intensity in the face of injustice, and Chiron’s insecurity to embrace the identity he deserves. There’s the frustrated anger of falling prey to societal prejudice and the innocence of believing goodness can exist. A welcome notion of forgiveness arrives just in time, a culmination of the pain and suffering fueling a metamorphosis still unable to kill the last of this young man Juan and Teresa accepted when no one else would. This forgiveness alludes to a hope for once devoid of strings.
Jenkins glimpses at the human soul and the hellish experiences endured despite it. We’re shown humankind’s capacity to change and the notion it’s never too late. Life throws curveballs and we adjust expectations and morality in response, doing what’s needed whether becoming someone we’re not to continue living or failing to adapt within a venue that makes us vulnerable and exposed. No one can therefore escape his/her inherent hypocrisy, a universal trait to learn from rather than flaw to denounce. Juan’s choices are thrown in his face, Kevin sacrifices his dignity, and Chiron embraces that which ruined his life. Each actor brilliantly highlights his/her moment of recognition, each left defenseless to refute his/her truth. Hypocrisy ultimately grounds us because without it we’d prove as vile as our mistakes.
Moonlight screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens on October 21.