Synopsis: Growing up poor and Black in Miami, a young man struggles for survival and self-acceptance.
Most movies are straightforward introductions as to what the movie is about. For example, Gladiator is about a gladiator and West Side Story is a story that takes place on the West Side. Some titles are trickier, like Back to the Future or To Kill a Mockingbird. After seeing the former, a seemingly nonsense title makes perfect sense, They did go back to the future! In the case of the latter, the title turns out to be a metaphor: It’s a sin to kill innocents, whether they be human or bird.
“Moonlight” would suggest a romance or science documentary. I settled in, ready for either… Moonlight begins in early 1990’s Miami, where a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is making his rounds. Soon we meet another member of the neighborhood, elementary school-aged Chiron who is poor and Black. He is a quiet and subdued child, bullied by his peers and neglected and verbally abused by his drug addict mother. The movie is divided into three sections, showing Chiron’s life as a child, teenager and twenty-something. Chiron has a lot to contend with, including wondering if he is gay. He understands the danger of people suspecting that orientation. Halfway through the movie, I astutely inferred that this would not be a romance or science flick. And it’s surely not a comedy, but there are a few things to cheer…
“Little” Chiron finds a father figure in Juan, who is kind to him. There’s a beautiful scene where he teaches the boy to swim. It’s after this swim lesson that Juan relates a story about his own youth… when he was little, there was an old neighborhood woman who told him that she would call him “Blue” because black boys look blue in the moonlight. Moonlight?! That’s the name of the movie! So now I knew I’d have to do some heavy lifting and figure out the meaning. The curse or beauty of being Black? I wasn’t sure, but one thing I was sure of is that this movie would not have gotten the financing or attention it deserved if it was pitched during the era it begins in, the early 1990’s.
Director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins is Black, and so is Tarell Alvin McCraney who wrote the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, upon which the movie is based. The characters are three dimensional and the entire cast is Black. Which wouldn’t have fit recent stock categories for Black men’s stories: 1. historical saint (MLK, Jackie Robinson) 2. streetwise clown (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and 3. thug gangster (South Central).
Producers would have taken one look at the script and turned it into a comedy with Chiron as a flamboyant gay drug dealer making sassy comebacks to anyone who throws homophobia his way. Or Chiron wouldn’t be gay at all, but a straight badass zipping down his rivals. Script doctors would add a hero White cop with a Black partner to take him down. The Black cop wouldn’t have many lines.
Hollywood might even fashion part of the script into a TV sitcom. Little Chiron could take a city bus to a senior citizen center where he would sell handmade trinkets to elderly Whites. Imagine the clash of cultures and circumstances…imagine the wisecracks! And Black directors wouldn’t be hired.
But in 2016 Barry Jenkins did get Moonlight made his way. And even if I can’t figure out the title metaphor, I can still appreciate Moonlight’s poetry.
Cut to the Chase: Artistic and compelling. Stand-out performances from Mahershala Ali (Juan), Ashton Sanders (teen Chiron) and Naomie Harris (Paula, Chiron’s mom).
Comedy Highlight: A diner scene, late in the movie, offers some levity when we see the chef who has his hands full cooking, doing quadruple duty as waiter, busboy and cashier. Chef’s Special indeed!