Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
There is an early exchange between our main character, a kid called Little (Alex R. Hibbert), and Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who has begun to act as his big brother. We wonder for a time whether Juan has an ulterior motive. Is he trying to turn Little into a corner kid? Something worse? But doubts about Juan are extinguished by the doubt we see in Juan’s own face. Even he can’t fathom why he’s doing it. He seems confused by his own actions. Sure, the kid reminds him of himself as a boy, but don’t others? Why this one? I guess that’s the question all of us ask ourselves when we fall in love: Why this one?
The exchange is mostly monologue—Juan’s. That’s true of most of Little’s exchanges. He doesn’t say much. But when he does it has impact. It hits you in the gut.
Juan is telling Little about his experience coming to Miami from Cuba, running around, not knowing any better. He recalls a time when an old lady stopped him and said she would call him “Blue,” because, she says, in the moonlight black boys look blue.
Little: Is your name Blue?
Juan [laughs]: Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
Much of the rest of the movie is how Little lets everyone else make that decision for him.
Who he’s going to be
The movie is split into three parts, each named for either the nickname or real name of our main character:
In the first, he’s about 10. The second ... 16 or so? By the time he’s Black, he’s in his late 20s and no longer little.
Does it lose something in the third act? For me, for a time, it does. For a time, Chiron lost my sympathy. He had it in the first two.
He’s small and picked-upon, living in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), a crack addict who is too busy looking for her next fix to look after, or even care about, her own son. It’s up to others to do it for her: Juan, who teaches him to swim, and his girl, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who feeds him and cares for him, and Little’s friend Kevin, who gives him advice: “See, you just gotta show them niggas you ain’t soft.” That’s the key to Kevin, who’s bigger, louder, occupies his space in the world. Little retreats from the world. He takes baths. I identified.
One of Little’s hit-you-in-the-guts lines is near the end of the first act. Juan has just had a showdown with Teresa, who, against neighborhood etiquette and common sense, is smoking crack in a car near the drug dealers, and Juan is ready to rip her a new one. But she senses his vulnerability; her son is his vulnerability, and she uses it. She uses the fact that he cares and she doesn’t, and back at his place, Juan and Teresa and Little sitting around the dining table like a family, Little drops a non sequitur like a bomb: “Am I a faggot?” I thought Juan’s response was a little cautious, a little PC, but then he’s hit in the gut with the next question: “Do you sell drugs?” Little is making sense of the world. The man saving him is the man destroying his mother. Juan owns to it but the admission, and Little’s quick exit, crumples him.
By the next act Juan is gone—a funeral is mentioned in passing—and his place in the story is taken by what Juan kept at bay: the bullies of the world, specifically Terrel (Patrick Decile) and his toadies, who pick on Chiron (Ashton Saunders) in class and in the schoolyard and follow him home, mocking his mother, his pants, his supposed sexual preference. Kevin isn’t part of that; he’s just nearby, bragging about this or that girl he did this or that with; then suddenly he’s at the beach with Chiron, who fled there at night, and the two share a joint and a sexual moment. You sense the world opening up to Chiron: Maybe it can be this; maybe it can be beautiful. The next day it slams shut. Terrel demands Kevin pick a fight with Chiron, and he does. Kevin gives in to the demands of the world, Chiron doesn’t and gets hurt for it—both physically and emotionally—and he snaps. I had friends in high school who snapped in similar ways, but less violent ways. Chiron busts a chair over Terrel’s back, and the authorities, who never acted throughout Terrel’s long reign of terror, now act: They put Chiron in juvey.
By the third act, the skinny kid is gone. Now he’s got a body like a superhero, and a grill like a drug dealer. He is a drug dealer. In Atlanta. It’s how he survived. We get the story piecemeal after Kevin (Andre Holland, Wendell Smith in “42”) phones out of the blue, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now Black—Kevin’s nickname for him in Act II—goes to see him in the Cuban restaurant Kevin runs in Miami. It’s a small place but I like the atmosphere of it and Kevin’s pride in it. That said, this part drags a bit. Maybe because I don’t identify with Black here? We don’t know exactly what he’s up to—Love? Revenge? Both?—and it’s pulling teeth getting anything out of him. I wonder where the kid I identified with went.
Where did he go? He went to a harder place and became a person who could survive there. That, too, when I figured it out, I identified with. The hardest thing is to remain sensitive in a hard world. The world closes you off, bit by bit, or all at once. It happened to me on some level and it happened to Chiron.
Eventually, back at Kevin’s place, he reveals where Little and Chiron are—still inside—when he says the most devastating line of the year:
You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. The only one. I haven’t really touched anyone, since.
The mind reels at the sadness of it all.
And the Oscar goes to...
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is as beautifully structured as a short story or novella. It deserves its accolades and awards. It’s even more powerful during the second viewing.
I particularly like how intimately it’s photographed. We’re never far away from our lead—Little, Chiron, Black. We often seem to be following right behind him as if we’re bullies following him home from school or guardian angels looking after him. Helpless guardian angels.