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Moonlight [Movie Review]

The themes and content of “good” books and movies vary. But, the one thing they all have in common is that they make me feel something. Action and thrillers excite and get my heart racing. Comedies make me smile when they’re good and double over with gut-busting laughter when they’re great. And then there are great dramas. Dramas make me feel everything. Happiness, sadness, anger, despair, fatigue. At different times and sometimes all at once.

Moonlight is one of those great dramas.

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Moonlight is an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Told in three acts and via three actors, the movie covers the boyhood (Little – Alex R. Hibbert), teens (Chiron – Ashton Sanders), and early adulthood (Black – Trevante Rhodes) of a gay Black boy growing up in Miami.

Alex R. Hibbert as Little in Moonlight.
Alex R. Hibbert as Little

From the beginning, Chiron was catching hell from all sides. As a boy, classmates and neighborhood boys chase and tease Little because he doesn’t want to fight. Being quiet and not having the early traits of machismo makes him an easy target for the other boys. They call him names because there’s something different about him.

There’s also his relationship with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). At the beginning of the movie I wondered about Little’s parents and family life when he avoided going home. When I first saw his mom, I thought her reaction to her young child staying out all night was understandable. She wore scrubs so I assumed she had a job and seemed like a loving mom who cared about her son. So her aggressiveness and hostility towards Little a few scenes later confused me. But, things became clearer when I realized that she was a drug addict.

Little is an outcast from most of his peers and doesn’t receive consistent support and attention at home. He finds some solace in his only friend Kevin (Jaden Piner). And like many other young Black men, finds what he’s looking for on the streets in the form of Juan (Mahershala Ali). These two male figures have a tremendous impact on Little and Chiron and shape the identity of the man he becomes.

Moonlight - (L) Little with Juan (R) Little with Kevin
(L) Little with Juan (R) Little with Kevin

Kevin is a pretty normal kid who is one of the few that seems to like Chiron. He accepts Chiron for who he is. Kevin possesses the ability to see Chiron and the other boys for who they are and relates to and understands them and their needs. As the boys mature, Kevin shares his teen escapades with Chiron and helps him to navigate his own burgeoning sexuality.

Juan (aka Blue) is a drug dealer who comes to Little’s rescue. He’s in a very hard and masculine line of business with some of the physical trappings of Black male street life. Yet, he took an interest in Little and didn’t go out of his way to act like a tough guy. He answers the hard questions that Little asks and in doing so offers further insight into how he sees himself. He has a quiet tenderness and nurturing quality that seems at odds with his outward life and identity.

Going into the movie, I didn’t know what to expect from Juan’s relationship with Little. As Juan began to take a deeper interest in Little, I worried about this grown man being so friendly to a little kid and feared he might be a child molester. But, I had to check myself and ask why it would feel more normal and acceptable for a man to ignore or encourage a young boy to embrace hypermasculinity. Why isn’t it expected that he would nurture and care for a boy who is in desperate need of help?

Photo of Ashton Sanders as Chiron in Moonlight.
Ashton Sanders as Chiron

These two characters try to help Chiron understand and accept himself. Yet, they’re not themselves when out in the world. They both engage Chiron in learning experiences that encourage him to open up and show his vulnerabilities. But, neither Juan (aka Blue) or Kevin are living as their honest selves. It’s painful to watch them show Chiron the support and acceptance he needs in one scene. Only to then watch them disappoint him by being a part of the drug trade and hyper-masculine groups that are the source of his despair.

Heartbroken, Chiron buries the pain that results from his constant disappointment by the people who claim to care about him. He transforms himself from a small and timid teen who tries to stay out of everyone’s way to Black, a large imposing man who takes up a lot of physical space.

Trevante Rhodes as Black in Moonlight.
Trevante Rhodes as Black

It’s telling that there’s a purposeful physical change when Chiron becomes Black. Yet, throughout he remains a quiet figure with a permanent look of unexpressed emotional pain. He’s seen as weird for being a quiet loner as a kid. Yet, as a melancholy adult man, nobody seems to question his sexuality or masculinity. What does it say about our society when external characteristics determine manhood and masculinity and it’s weak or effeminate to show pain or vulnerability?

Chiron learns a lot about himself from Kevin and Juan. But, they also teach him how to become Black by showing him that men compromise their beliefs and hide their real selves from the world. He adopts the trade, grills, and car of Juan’s persona, Blue. Chiron also learns how to control the outward expression of his sexuality from Kevin.

with grills and gold chain.
Trevante Rhodes as Black with grills and gold chain.

The names we use and allow others to call us says a lot about how we view ourselves and our identity. As a child, Chiron is called “Little” and other names with no real understanding of why. As he grows older and tries to assert himself, he begins to insist on being called his real name, “Chiron”. I also noticed that Juan has the nickname of “Blue” and when Chiron reinvents himself, he adopts the moniker “Black” which Kevin gave him as a teen.

Moonlight is a great study in the facade of machismo and hyper-masculinity. It explores the development and suppression of Black boys’ and men’s identities and sexuality. On a basic level, it’s a coming of age story about a gay Black male. Yet, because it’s about that it’s also about so much more.

Moonlight is about the stereotypes of being gay, Black, and/or male. And the realities of living with or suppressing some, all, or none of those expected traits. Little and Chiron are outcasts because their outward presence doesn’t fit the expectations of their peers. Yet, Black is still isolated despite his physical identity fitting what’s expected of him as a Black man.

Recommendation

Moonlight is an amazing drama because it made me feel. But it’s special because it also made me think. Imagine how much happier or relieved a lot of people would feel if they could be their real selves at all times and with all people. Especially if they shaped their own identity from childhood. And didn’t have to conform to society’s expectations or contend with stereotypes.

I’d recommend Moonlight if you’re human. But to be more specific if you’re into great movies about everyday people. Some of the content is a bit adult but this could be great for teens and young adults who are still trying to find themselves and figure out their identity.

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