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The Hopeful Poetry of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”

Moonlight was welcomed as a small film when it premiered in October. Within a week, it became a big film and not because it brought in more money than Star Wars, but because it quickly became the most talked about film in my social and work circles. And for good reason. In a culture broadsided by unremitting police violence and an election that could arguably be called a national nervous breakdown, Barry Jenkins’ profoundly moving film came as neither a shout nor a whisper, but as an eloquent statement that indeed, black lives matter.

Now more than ever.

Which, incidentally, is the statement I hear more often than any other these days regarding bringing forth the better angels of our nature in this dark and challenging time. Stymied as to what actions to take, you can start by seeing this film. In no way polemical or sentimental, it concisely cuts right to the core of a moment in our history with truth, compassion and understanding. There is a poetry to it that startles, as evidenced by the way James Laxton’s camera lingers on each actor’s eyes, a boy’s checkered shirt, the waves as he learns to swim. Nicholas Brittel’s score beautifully supports the tone of the film, playing with pitch and tempo, and layering the sound and beat of the music in a Southern hip-hop style known as “chopped and screwed.”

Moonlight reveals the challenges of life in the hood not seen since the brilliant HBO series, The Wire. This is a smart film, and the intelligence of its characterization and subtle poetry make it a gem of a work that goes far beyond its own themes and the lives it depicts into something so universal, it would be absurd to ghettoize it as a black film, a gay film — or even a contemporary film. This is what boys go through growing up in America. And when one boy also happens to be an only child of a single mother with drug issues, and a member of both a racial and sexual minority, the story of a black boy growing up in Miami ends up revealing both the promise and the failure of the American experiment. We’re talking about the big stuff here – race, culture, identity, family, life, death, sexuality and the entrenched socioeconomics of poverty.

Chiron, who we meet as a little boy running from bullies, holds all these issues in his young heart. His big doe eyes immediately get us on his side, and we keep rooting for him, even as his chances look increasingly grim and the only guidance and support he gets is from a local drug kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). At home, his mother (Naomie Harris) is spiraling into addiction. At school, the culture of violence that is all too often a form of American male-conditioning, drives him further inward, unable even to trust the only friend he has.

The film is broken into three concise parts, in which actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray Chiron, respectively, as a boy of about 9, then one of 16, and finally as an adult in his late 20s or early 30s.

The moment of truth, as it does for so many boys in his situation, comes at 16. When Chiron’s only friend (Jharrel Jerome) is drawn into a male ritual involving violence, domination and the working out of male insecurities – courtesy of the bully and his minions who have been terrorizing the boy for a decade — Chiron, who has held back for years, finally explodes into violence, seeing no other option. Juan, his drug dealer mentor, has by now been died, his mother is useless – and after all, this is what he has been taught to do. He attacks his tormentor fiercely and is dragged away by the police, setting into motion the further hardening of his soul.

We next meet Chiron in Atlanta, where he has seemingly worked out his destiny in a manner that will break your heart. And yet the film ends on a note of great hope – even a promise of redemption. Because moonlight, while not as bright as sunlight, illuminates all the same and can show us the way forward.