TELLURIDE – You might not realize it at first, but I am a minority. Actually, I’m technically only a minority in that I’m gay. But, beyond the inevitable struggle of self-acceptance I experienced in my youth I’m also a white gay man who grew up in middle class environment that provided me with good schools, the opportunity to attend a recognized university and the tools to advance in a career of my choosing. There are literally millions of other white gay men on this same path I have taken across the country. The stories of our subset have been told for decades even if the spotlight was of an independent variety and the audience wasn’t fueled by the Hollywood studio machine. That often means for better or worse we have been the de facto face of the gay community to generations of our peers. It goes without saying that there have simply not been enough films about the gay experience of African-Americans or other people of color for that matter. Is is not hyperbole to note Barry Jenkins’ magnificent new drama “Moonlight,” which premiered at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival, is a historic achievement in this regard.
Told in three chapters, “Moonlight” is a story about Chiron who we first meet as 9-year-old (Alex Hibbert), a young boy whose nickname is appropriately Little. He’s smaller, scrawnier than the other boys, and always looking at their games from a distance, wanting to be part of the fun even if they pick on him because he’s different. Chased home one day after school he ends up hiding in an abandoned apartment in a part of Miami more familiar to drug addicts than families. He finds an unforeseen savior in drug dealer Juan (a phenomenal Mahershala Ali) who, and after refusing to tell him where he lives, brings Chrion to the home he shares with his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe). This is one of the first moments during the picture where you realize Jenkins and Tarell McCraney (who received story credit) are intent on shattering stereotypes and conveying a truth in experience you rarely find in filmed media. Sure, Juan deals drugs as a means of survival, but he and Theresa don’t live in the combo strip club and drug den that pop culture has conditioned audiences to expect. Instead, they have a welcoming home like any other responsible couple would. And it becomes very apparent they care more for Chiron’s wellbeing than his single mother Paula (an always on her game Naomie Harris) who can barely balance her job and growing drug habit.
And then there’s Kevin (Jaden Piner), Chiron’s schoolmate who takes a shine to him even if Kevin can’t recognize it. One day he shows Chiron how to fight back against the other kids that bully him. They wrestle on the ground until Kevin is eventually satisfied, praising his friend, “I knew you wasn’t soft.” Chiron has his doubts.
As Chiron spends more time with Juan and Theresa, his mother’s addiction gets worse. Juan finds her one night strung out in a bad part of town – basically his workplace – and has to come to grips that it’s likely his product driving her behavior. It begins to weigh on him as he slides into the role of the father figure Chiron has never had. It’s the bond between them that prompts Chrion to ask Juan at dinner one night, “What’s a faggot?” Taken slightly aback, Juan doesn’t respond as you might expect, saying, “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” And when Chiron asks if his mother does drugs, it strikes a knife in Juan’s heart.
Seven years later, Little Chiron isn’t so little anymore. He’s taller than many of his schoolmates, but still slight and awkward. And the bullying is infinitely worse. Terrel (Patrick Decile), the alpha dog of his class, recognizes something in Chiron that’s different and verbally punishes him for it. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is still on the look out for Chiron even if he’s boasting about hooking up with one girl or another.
Things are worse at home. Paula is near rock bottom and is either so strung out she’s high as a kite or so desperate for a hit she’ll take her son’s money and disappear into a full on binge. Juan is out of the picture, but Theresa is still as much of a safety net as she can be. It’s simply not enough.
Chiron is getting hit from all sides, but there’s something about Kevin. One night he heads to a part of South Beach that Kevin has mentioned he frequents and that he soon discovers is a bit of a gay cruising spot. Sitting on the beach, Kevin is stunned to find him there. A hit of Kevin’s joint, a bit of seduction, and the two of them have a moment that will stay with Chiron forever (it turns out Kevin’s bravado with the ladies is clearly exaggerated).
Reality takes a toll, however. Terrel, perhaps seeing what he hates about himself in Chiron (alluded to in the subtlest of ways by Jenkins) takes his abuse to another level. He challenges Kevin to play a game of knock down and decides Chiron will be his victim. Kevin succumbs to the peer pressure, but believes he can get Chiron to stay down and end it quickly. With a throng of other students watching Chiron fights back with an anger we’ve never seen before. And the repercussions of his actions send him on a path no one could have foreseen.
When we first see Chiron 10 years later, (Trevante Rhodes) his muscular frame and gold teeth fronts have transformed him into a hulk of quiet intimidation that his younger selves would barely recognize. Out of nowhere he receives a phone call from Kevin (André Holland) who he hasn’t spoken to since that fateful day in their high school courtyard. His world rocked, their reunion amounts to two men rediscovering each other over the course of one night. And what Kevin learns is simply heartbreaking.
The film benefits from a truly stellar ensemble, but “Moonlight” wouldn’t have the emotional resonance it has without the incredible work of Holland and Rhodes. Holland expertly plays Kevin’s confident charms while also suggesting a slight weariness of a man who has had to restart his life at such a young age. Rhodes has the unenviable task of being the third actor to portray a character in succession and one that has endured a tremendous off screen transformation. What he accomplishes with arguably half the dialogue of his co-stars is remarkable.
Jenkins and longtime collaborator cinematographer James Laxton drench the picture in stunning imagery that is often Malick-esque in the best way possible. In particular, a scene between Kevin and Chiron on the beach under the moonlight is so gorgeously lit it almost looks like a painting. The picture avoids most contemporary music until the third act and that allows up and coming composer Nicholas Britell to fashion an impressive modern score that helps the film reach cinematic heights.
“Moonlight” has a lot to say about Chiron and Kevin’s own journeys, but Jenkins also wants to make sure the audience understands it’s the socio-economic environment that has shaped them. Chiron’s story is not the life story of every African-American gay man, nor is it even the average story of one. But, it is a story that will echo to many who haven’t had the opportunity of relative privilege.
There are also aspects of both Chiron and Kevin’s lives that continue to play out today just as they have for decades. It’s one reason why Jenkins’ masterful decision to avoid as many historical timestamps as possible helps give the picture an unexpected timeliness. Each snapshot of Chiron’s life could have taken place yesterday or 20 years ago. As you read this, his story is happening to someone else and there’s nothing to suggest that it won’t happen to another Chiron tomorrow. Even in this sometimes socially progressive America not everyone gets the benefit of being able to come to terms with who they are like a majority of gay white men have.
Like “Brokeback Mountain” a decade ago, “Moonlight” is a piece of art that will transform lives long after it leaves theaters. Those who will be changed by the picture may not see it on the big screen. They may even have to see it in secret. But when they do. When they watch Chiron have that first kiss, when he can be himself for just an instance in a world that oppresses him? It will be everything. [A]