A young man's life depicted at three ages.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, and Trevante Rhodes
Initial Review by Phil Crone
That makes the final scene for Little at the table with Juan and Teresa all the more effecting. I always say kids are smarter than adults think, and Little piecing together everything about Juan being a drug dealer plays out beautifully. Mahershala Ali earns his Oscar in this scene, communicating his regret via terse answers and long silence.
As Chiron, we see the important effect of peers on shaping who a person becomes. If the lessons learned as Little informed what he could aspire to as a man, the lessons of Chiron would be how to act as a man. Chiron’s life at home and at school have both deteriorated. Paula is now a full-blown addict and only using her son for convenience, willingly playing the “mom card” any chance she can get. Paula continues to carry resentment to Teresa, whom Chiron has continued to maintain a surrogate mother relationship with after Juan’s death (which we can all assume the cause of, although Jenkins leaves it unsaid). Paula continues to rant about how she knows best how to raise her son, which is – to put it nicely – an absolute fucking joke of a notion. Chiron continues to be ridiculed at school, mostly stemming from a combination of extreme shyness and his mother being an easy target of abuse. Chiron remains unable to defend himself from the ridicule, which is a daily occurrence at this point. Once we see Chiron get knocked out by Kevin after taking a couple of solid shots, the transformation into Black is all but complete, with a (very satisfying to the audience) broken chair across the back of his tormenter punctuating the transition.
Initially, Black is unrecognizable from Chiron and Little, and that’s not just because he’s built a freaking brickhouse. Black walks with confidence and has no issue speaking his mind to his underlings. Black has followed in the footsteps of Juan, the only model of success he’s ever known. He’s done it by being hard, the only way he’s ever known how thanks to the constant bullying. Black is the unfortunate sum of the traumas of his life. More than likely, the same can be said for his mentor Juan and his own mother. While Jenkins is applying this to a homosexual black man, it’s a truth that permeates through all of us: we tend to grow into our role models. Whether it be the woman with the abusive father that marries an abusive husband, the racist that grew up with racist parents, or the well-adjusted Libertarian who sometimes can’t understand why everyone else can’t get their shit together and gets annoyed by constant blame of the “system” while skating over the fact that he was born into an intact family and got dealt a good hand in the IQ Lottery, we are all largely who we are thanks to our role models at a young age. In that way, I feel as if Jenkins is placing a partial blame on some of the issues in black community on a lack of everyday role models. It’s great to have heroes like MLK and Rosa Parks, but without a tangible example in Chiron’s early life, the die has already been cast.
While Chiron is very much the sum of these experiences, the same cannot quite be said for his best friend Kevin, who acts as a foil to Chiron for much of the movie. We never learn much about Kevin’s home life, but we see that Kevin comes off like a typical kid who is primarily just blending in. While Chiron spends most of his life struggling with who is, we never get that impression from Kevin. However, that seems to be because Kevin isn’t trying to figure out who he is – he’s simply satisfying the basic needs of just having friends and fitting in. We see the tragic ramifications of that attitude in the Chiron chapter, as Kevin reluctantly knocks Chiron out after goading from some bullies, just hours after the two of them shared a passionate encounter on a beach. Ashton Sanders does a great job as Chiron here, communicating without words after Kevin punches him, forcing Kevin to choose over and over, no longer allowing Kevin to conveniently ignore him in school while Paula conveniently ignored him at home as well.
When Kevin and Black meet, we find out some interesting things about both of them. Kevin, unlike Black, has become his own man after prison. In a weird way, prison was good for Kevin in the same way the military helps straighten out 18 year old knuckleheads. Jenkins phrases the way Kevin speaks of prison as if it’s a rite of passage of sorts, in an intentional and nonchalant manner. In this way, Kevin again acts as an opposite to Black in that he is afforded the luxury to learn who he is in a healthy way. Meanwhile, we see Black immediately regress back to the shy Chiron. It was a change I couldn’t help but appreciate – I don’t know about you all, but I find myself acting a lot more juvenile whenever I’m around my parents for an extended time. It’s like you just slip back into that mindset.
We finally get the climactic scene of the movie, with Black confessing to Kevin that he’s never “touched” anyone else. We don’t see much after this, but it’s a powerful scene that Jenkins deliberately leaves open to interpretation. I’m not sure Chiron is a homosexual – I don’t think he actually knows his sexual identity. The only advice he ever received on the subject was Juan telling him that he’d know when he knew. Meanwhile, Chiron spends the bulk of his life idolizing Kevin and creating a persona for himself to fit into the only world he knows. The final shot of Kevin comforting Black played to me like just the first step in learning who Chiron is, with this being the first time he’s ever actually opened up to anyone.
“Moonlight” is a masterpiece on the human condition on who we are. We can be the sum of our traumas and perpetuate a cycle of despair like Chiron, or we can become better and learn who we truly are like Kevin did. “Moonlight” ends on a positive hope that Chiron will ultimately do the same. I will gladly revisit “Moonlight” in the near future, as I continue to think and rethink this well-crafted tale about a person just living their life, and while it may not be one I can relate to on a pure identity level, it’s truths are universal for all of us.