Moonlight ★★★★

Recently added to my LGBT Films Ranked

I'll say it up front: Not since "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) has a mainstream American film addressed an LGBT issue with such raw power. And this one moves awareness forward on an important level -- breaking down the stigma attached to homosexual relations in the black community, which even non-blacks will recognize as mirrored in their own social structures.

Before I attempt to get my thoughts down about about the film itself, let me say that the theater experience was once again an eye-opener. There is a scene where two of the high school-aged boys share a sexual experience on a Miami beach. At that point, two elderly white women in the audience seated near the front stood up and walked out, shaking their heads while looking away from the screen in obvious disgust.

I don't know what those ladies thought they had come to see, but it might have behooved them to stay till the end to find out if they still felt the same way. The scene wasn't even that graphic really, just explicit. I was ashamed to witness such disrespectful behavior among my contemporaries. How can we learn anything without opening our hearts and minds, without looking beyond our own horizons?

Writer-director Barry Jenkins gave himself a real challenge here. He wanted to show a single character growing up over the course of some two decades, exploring his sexual identity, and dealing with a lot of pain while experiencing harsh realities. He chose to divide the film into three parts to depict the character going through very separate and distinct life stages.


In Part 1, "Little," we are introduced to nine-year-old Chiron aka Little (Alex R. Hibbert), a runt of a kid growing up in Liberty City, a Miami neighborhood that's home to one of the largest concentrations of blacks in South Florida. He lives alone with his emotionally abusive, drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), gets picked on and beat up by the school bullies, and finds refuge with his mom's drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). The boy's only school-age friend is a classmate named Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tries to teach him to "toughen up."

A couple of critical conversations come up during this segment. The first is a story Juan tells Little about an old woman in Cuba who nicknamed him "Blue" because of the way the moonlight made his black skin look bluish. Juan says nobody can tell you who you are, and when the time comes, you must decide that for yourself. The second comes at the end of this part after Little asks Juan and Teresa what a "faggot" is. He then asks if Juan is selling his mother drugs. Unable to tell the boy a lie, Juan answers "yes," which breaks the bond between Little and the only male role model he had ever looked up to.

In Part 2, "Chiron," Little has become a lanky teenager (Ashton Sanders), still picked on by school bullies but closer than ever with Teresa, who is like a surrogate mom, and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), still his best friend, who nicknames him "Black." The 16-year-old prefers to be called by his real name, Chiron, even as his real mother has sunken deeper into drug abuse, bringing men home and hitting on her son for money to pay for her crack habit.

The two key sequences here are Chiron's sexual awakening on the beach with Kevin, and then Kevin turning on him at school under the orders of the main bully Terrel (Patrick Decile). Chiron takes a terrible beating, but won't reveal the truth to school officials. Instead, the next day, he sucker-punches Terrel in class with a wooden chair and ends up hauled off to jail on an assault charge that lands him in prison for ten years.

In Part 3, "Black," Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is out of prison and living in Atlanta, where he deals drugs, much like Juan did in Miami. In fact, Chiron even looks like his former father figure, bulked up with muscle, wearing bling and a black dew rag, and driving a souped-up Cadillac. His mother now resides in a drug rehabilitation home, Teresa is still in contact, but this is a much more focused and self-confident version of the once-bullied school boy.

Again, there are two key sequences, where Chiron meets Paula after ten years apart, and where he reunites with Kevin (André Holland) in Miami at Kenny's, the restaurant where Kevin now works as a cook, having learned his trade in prison. I have to applaud Jenkins for the way he handled both of these "reunions," allowing us to see how much each character had changed and yet remained the same over the many years and events that have ensued. It's really pulled off quite remarkably.

Themes here range from the nature of love to the need for belonging and how the role of cultural environment plays no small part in shaping the lives of all these characters. It's a ghetto paradigm nearly impossible to escape and a merciless world for a shy and sensitive youth to find himself. This won Best Motion Picture - Drama at the Golden Globes, along with nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Ali) and Actress (Harris), plus Best Director/Screenplay (Jenkins) and Score (Nicholas Britell). For my money, this is the film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar.

Listed among the Academy Awards' Best Picture winners

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