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Moonlight Delves Into Identity and Race

If you see one film this year, see Moonlight. It’s probably the most important film of the year, and thankfully, it handles itself very well.

        It’s a bildungsroman about a black boy named Chiron. Chiron lives in a poor neighborhood, amidst drug dealing, and drug dealers, one of which — a man named Juan — takes a liking to Chiron, and becomes a sort of father figure to him. We learn quickly that life is not easy for Chiron. He is clearly poor, a hardship exacerbated by his mother’s crack addiction. He’s also bullied at school.

      Indeed, as early as the first ‘act’ – into which the film is divided in three – it is evident that the other boys don’t like Chiron. The reason is implied by the mother, and later confirmed by Chiron himself when he asks of Juan the crushing question: “What’s a faggot?” During the next two acts, we watch Chiron struggle to find his place in a society which has specified a very cramped space for the black male.

The original story comes from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Barry Jenkins, director and screenwriter, was introduced to the play by the Borscht art collective in Miami. Some time had passed since the release of his last film. Jenkins was in a rut. Finally, his patience was rewarded. He reached out to McCraney and the rest, I suppose, is history.

        He made a few changes, though. This is fundamentally a film — not even a ‘movie’, what with all the connotative baggage attached to the term. It’s an indie-film, but it defies that label, too. Thankfully, it shies from the self-conscious, mawkish style that I, at least, associate with many indie titles, and it embraces the cinematic style of the genre drama. So it’s caught between that righteous, if sometimes overplayed, style of indie filmmaking, and the hollow polish of the cinema.  In fact, the film stands firmly between the two, blowing kisses to one while trading secrets with the other. This is, of course, a compliment.

While certainly utilizing pre-conceived notions and genres, Jenkins finds new purpose for them. For example, Juan, the drug-dealer/father figure, is far more than a label or stereotype. He’s a better father than most privileged, upper-class white boys can expect to receive. He is never motivated by anything other than genuine love — and, perhaps, guilt. Juan is the dealer who supplies Chiron’s mother — “I’m getting it from you,” she reminds him.

The tableaux of the addicted mother, the troubled child, and the saintly dealer refuses to become a stereotype because of its insistence on ambiguity. Juan can be both the problem and the solution because such a situation exists in reality. The film is not interested in perpetuating unidimensional stereotypes — that the drug dealer is nothing but a virus. That dedication to reality is important, and it provides another layer of complexity to the primary conflict of the story: between Chiron and society.

The pressure’s on to be like Juan. Juan embodies the successful black man as portrayed in our culture. But that’s not Chiron. His peers gravitate towards that lifestyle and demeanor, but Chiron never flocks. The other boys ostracize him for it, of course, but Chiron never flocks. Until the third act. At the very first shot, we see his face: the grills, the earrings, the do-rag. The resemblance is striking. Then, as he’s driving, we see that he drives a similar car, with the same crown ornament on the dashboard. He has become Juan; he has yielded to society.

Chiron is played by three different actors, each of whom miraculously captures the same shade of pain and vulnerability in their performance. This might have been luck rather than skill, honestly. In Rolling Stone, Jenkins expressed his initial desire that each actor playing Chiron would have the same eyes. It helps, but there’s more to a character than the eyes. Whatever the case, this continuity assists in the suspension of our disbelief. As a boy, a scared little animal, then as a distant, agonized teen, and finally, a broken man beneath a suit of armor, Chiron is Chiron, and Chiron is real. He lives and breathes and hurts, and it is impossible to decline his pain.

        It seems odd, now, that I haven’t mentioned Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend — Chiron’s true mother, in a sense — or Kevin, or the nicknames assigned Chiron throughout the film. Or the symbolism of the moon, the color blue, and the name Chiron. There’s so much to say because there’s so much being said.

Most importantly, though, this is a movie about a gay black boy named Chiron. And it’s the first movie I’ve seen that doesn’t treat the gay black man as simply a gay white man with more pigment. Identity is far more complicated than many movies would have it believed. This movie acknowledges the truth, that both his blackness and his gayness are present and pressing at all times. They are inextricable from one another. This is why this is such a powerful, timely story. More than ever, now, do we need art exploring identity and race in this country. And this movie does a beautiful job of it. It’s playing at Shattuck Cinemas.