“Moonlight”: Identity-Seeking Across Decades

Three different actors portray three distinct stages of one man’s life and identity search in Barry Jenkins‘s strongly reviewed Moonlight. Noted author Ta-Nehisi Coates has called it the “best take on black masculinity…ever” (Slate).

David Edelstein, Vulture:

…Jenkins puts you inside the head of a closemouthed, fatherless African-American protagonist, Chiron (pronounced Chy-rone), as he grows from a lonely boy to a lonely adult, with a single moment of connection in the middle of the middle section: a brief sexual encounter with a teenager named Kevin on a Florida beach. The movie’s first half builds to that moment, the last half falls away from it. But you can’t pin Moonlight down as a gay-awakening film — or a fear-of-coming-out film or anything centering on sex or love. It’s deeper than that. The title alludes to an idea about the moon: that in its light you realize that only you (not the gods, not other people) can decide who you want to be.

In Part One he’s a child: small, black, fatherless, possibly gay, and living in a poor area of Miami with a drug-addicted mom. Peter Debruge, Variety:

Even before Chiron is old enough to understand the notion of homosexuality, his classmates seem to have labeled him as such. The other kids openly torment the runt-like child (played by Alex Hibbert at this stage), whom they call ‘Little’ and dismiss as ‘soft,’ chasing him to a local crack den, where he’s discovered by a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, breathing humanity into a stereotype). Since Little refuses to speak, Juan has no choice but to bring him back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, a doll-like beauty with remarkable inner strength) — and in so doing, takes his place as a sort of surrogate father and role model.

In the middle part, states Eric Kohn, Indiewire, “…Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders)” whose despair and anger culminates in a tragic turning point. And by the finale:

…he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation.

The trailer follows:

Selected Conclusions

David Edelstein, Vulture:

 Moonlight isn’t weighed down by psychologizing, but you can infer all sorts of things about the effect of an absent father on Chiron’s sense of self (the name evokes the centaur — half-man, half-horse) and the power of a culture given to crushing all manifestations of male sensitivity (let alone gayness). You can infer the dire impact on Chiron of a crack-addict mother — she does, tearfully, in later scenes, when the damage is done and his character formed. But it might be better just to think about the moon — and how all our choices of who to be might look in its pitiless light.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “All the clichés of the coming-of-age movie have been peeled away, leaving something quite startling in its emotional directness. And though the movie is never sentimental, while watching you become aware how rarely we get to see black male characters onscreen in such an emotionally revealing light.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “…leaves you feeling both stripped bare and restored, slightly better prepared to step out and face the world of people around you, with all the confounding challenges they present. There’s not much more you can ask from a movie.”

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