Screen Savor: Moonlight Shines Bright

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Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24.

Based on gay playwright Tarell McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning “Moonlight” (A24), which took home Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay awards, is nothing less than a breathtaking cinematic achievement. Presented in three separate chapters, “Moonlight” tells the heartrending story of Chiron – as a child, a teen, and an adult —growing up gay in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood.

In the chapter titled “Little”, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is rescued from school bullies by drug kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali), and fed and comforted by Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Juan returns the painfully shy young Chiron to his single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) without so much as a thank you from her. Meanwhile, Chiron’s best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) takes it upon himself to try to toughen him up.

Chiron’s living situation is increasingly unpleasant, so he begins hanging out at Juan and Teresa’s. Juan takes him to the beach and tries to teach him to swim. At home, Chiron discovers his mother doing drugs with a strange man. Things come full circle when Juan catches Paula freebasing in a car with the crack she bought from one of his sales associates. What follows is a devastating confrontation scene where Paula makes fun of Chiron as Juan defends him.

Shortly after that, there is a scene at Juan and Theresa’s, where Chiron asks Juan “What’s a faggot”? To say that what follows is handled with grace and maturity is an understatement.

Set during his high school years, the “Chiron” segment finds Chiron (Ashton Sanders) relentlessly bullied by Terrel (Patrick Decille). At this point, though Juan is dead, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is still his best friend. He continues to spend time at Teresa’s as his home situation deteriorates due to Paula’s increased drug use.

Essentially homeless and sleeping where he can, Chiron runs into Kevin at the beach. With a delicate touch similar to the earlier “what’s a faggot?” scene, the sex scene that occurs is as erotic as it is sophisticated and artful. But such intimacy doesn’t last long when Kevin is pressured to beat up Chiron by the ever-bullying Terrel. The next day at school, Chiron finally explodes and assaults Terrel, and is arrested.

In “Black,” the third and final section, set in Atlanta, the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a fierce and muscular force, with a mouthful of gold fronts. He has taken up where Juan left off in terms of running a drug dealing operation. As a nod to Juan, he even has a similar crown-shaped air freshener on his dashboard.

Kevin (Andre Holland) tracks Chiron down by phone and apologizes. He tells Chiron he was reminded of him when he heard a song on the jukebox at the diner where he is a cook. He invites Chiron to come down to Florida and see him. The call has an immeasurable effect on him.

Following an emotional visit with Paula, who is in rehab, Chiron heads to Kevin’s place of work. From the moment of recognition that occurs between them to their reacquaintance, “Moonlight” shines brightly as it not only redefines gay cinema, but also black cinema in ways that have to be seen to be believed. Suffice to say, that there’s not a false move or performance in the film. DVD special features include deleted scenes and three featurettes.


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