… the recent movie. Which I saw on Monday and am still in the grip of. A stunning film, tracking its central character from a small, weak boy (in black Miami) to a big, hard man (in black Atlanta), as he struggles to carve out a place for himself in the world and to come to terms with his sexuality.


Notes on my life. I posted yesterday about two visits to Stanford attractions (an exhibition at the art museum; and the cactus garden), both in company with Juan Gomez, and then came Monday’s expedition (which involved lunch at the Fish Market and then the discount matinee at CineArts at Palo Alto Square — extra discount for senior citizens; no, I wasn’t carded), with Kim Darnell. All designed to give me some social life and some pleasurable time away from home, where the horrible soul-destroyingly noisy construction work on the balconies above my patio had morphed into something much worse, as rot was discovered in my walls, which have to be torn out on the outside and replaced (still to come: tearing out one wall, the one right behind my worktable, on the inside and replacing it). So these expeditions were a great gift. The (de)construction guys are off until Monday, giving Kim and me some time to clean up the mess the work has already made in my living room (black grit from the pounding and drilling outside, chunks of the wall flaking off and raining down on things).

But the movie. It comes in three sections, described below in the Wikipedia entry (which I’ve edited down to highlight the main narrative arc, the story of the constricted and barely articulated love between the central character and his buddy Kevin):

Moonlight is a 2016 American drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, with a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and stars Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali.

I: Little. Shy and withdrawn Chiron [pronounced like “Shy-Ron”] (Alex Hibbert), dubbed “Little” for his meek personality and size, is chased into an abandoned motel by a pack of bullies. He is later found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a [Cubano] crack dealer [a trapper (‘drug dealer’ in Southern Black slang)], who takes him to his house with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). … [Then there’s] his controlling and emotionally abusive [and crack-smoking] mother Paula (Naomie Harris). … {Other than Juan and Teresa, the only] person Chiron seems to find comfort and companionship in is his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), and their sexuality begins to bud when they stay after a dancing class during school to show their private parts to each other.

II: Chiron. Now a teenager, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is frequently bullied, harassed and openly threatened by one of his peers, Terrel (Patrick Decile), though he continues to remain close to Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome). [Chiron is then betrayed by Kevin, who’s pushed to serve as Terrel’s agent in beating Chiron up.]

III. Black. Now a hardened and tougher adult, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes), going by the name “Black” … is a drug dealer living outside Atlanta, … and now leads a similar life to the one Juan led, living in a large house and driving the same car [and bulked up like Juan, and dressing the same way]. … One night, he gets a call from Kevin (now played by André Holland), who asks Chiron to visit him in Miami, where he works as a server and cook at a diner, also apologizing for his actions as a teenager, which causes Chiron to shed a tear. The next morning, Chiron wakes up to find that he had a wet dream. He drives down to Florida … [Eventually] Chiron admits to Kevin that he has not had relations with anyone but him since they last met [with the heart-breaking line, “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me”]. They physically reconcile shortly after.

… Moonlight received virtually unanimous praise from critics, particularly for its direction, cinematography, and score [also the performances of the main cast].

Well deserved on all accounts.

Moonlight is a film of character, not action, and its significant effects are almost all quite subtle, turning on small facial expressions or gestures or the use of silence. (Throughout the film, Chiron speaks very little, protectively holding himself within himself, alone against the world.) Against this backdrop, the outbursts of violence are shocking, especially in Part II: Terrel roaming through the school like a hungry shark, looking to find someone weak to bloody; Kevin punching Chiron; the pack of boys gang-beating him; Chiron raging (in utter silence) through the school to find Terrel and take revenge on him, breaking a chair into splinters on his head and knocking him out.

Chiron and his father-substitute Juan (teaching the boy to swim, offering him advice, appreciating him) early in the film:


But Juan betrays Chiron, as Chiron sees it, by supplying crack to Paula, Chiron’s mother.

In part I, Little/Chiron and Kevin become buddies after they fight one another (Kim muttered, “I’ll never understand boys”) — a classic trope of male relationships, in which combat with a worthy opponent results in the two becoming close friends; they’ve proved their mettle to one another.

Then Chiron just after Kevin’s betrayal and the beating in part II:


Finally, Kevin and Chiron together in part III, each man startled to see what the other has become (Kevin is married, with a son) and how they got there: both spent time behind bars, where Kevin learned the useful trade of cooking and Chiron muscled up to become a hard man, as close to a replica of Juan as he could manage (right up to his becoming a trapper):


(Compare Juan in #2 with Chiron in #4.)

The film stock for each part roughly matches the period of that part — a subtle but effective touch. And the music is beautifully chosen. Notably, while Chiron is driving from Atlanta to Miami to see Kevin (and reconcile with his mother), we hear “Cucurrucucu Paloma” (sung by Caetano Veloso), a Mexican Spanish song of longing and lovesickness (significantly, also used by Pedro Almỏdovar in the movie Habla con Ella (Talk to Her). Neither Chiron nor Kevin is at all Latino, but Juan was a Miami Cuban.

The film is set in a solidly black world, a world in which white people are only incidental figures in the background — much the way black people function in most white people’s lives, except that if you’re black you never forget it, while most white people largely think of their race as insignificant. Someone should look at how Moonlight‘s characters use the noun nigger, and someone should look at their style shifting in their interactions with one another: it’s all African American black vernacular, but it’s by no means all the same. (Pretty much everybody of significance involved with the film is black, and they seem to know the territory pretty well.)

All three actors playing Chiron are first-class, but Trevante Rhodes, as he’s directed here, is stunning, giving us a character whose aching vulnerability lies just below an impassive surface.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: