by John S.
The old saying goes that “no man is an island.” The lesson is that we should not isolate ourselves, but rather actively engage one another in community. I couldn’t agree more with that end moral. However, I disagree with the first part: we are, actually, very much like islands. People, like islands, are physically separated from one another. Whether we remain disconnected, however, is up to each and everyone of us. Unlike islands, the connections that eventually link us to one another (if we so choose) are not as tangible as bridges, ships, or planes. Links between people are felt more than they are seen, and it is the complexity of human connection – connections made, lost, and regained – that is at the heart of Moonlight, one of the best films of 2017.
Moonlight is a love story on many different levels: between friends, between family members, and ultimately between friends who become something more. Although the main character is gay and so is the film’s central relationship, his journey and its themes of alienation, pain, hope, and – eventually – redemption are universal. I like to think that Moonlight won the Best Picture Award at this year’s Oscars based on this power, and not as a result of the bracing “Oscar So White” backlash from last year. Whatever the case may be, this film received the acclaim it so deserves and is now an indelible part of cinematic history.
Moonlight is a nuanced, subtle film that also functions as a coming-of-age tale told in three haunting movements. The fact that the characters are African-Americans is another point in its favor, not out of political correctness but due to the simple fact that their stories – never mind a story about a black gay man – don’t always make it to the silver screen. If the United States is such a diverse place filled with folks from different walks of life who have dazzling stories of their own, then why doesn’t Hollywood’s output reflect that? It should, and honoring Moonlight is a step in the right direction.
Setting aside matters of diversity and politics and focusing only on the strengths of the movie, Moonlight is a remarkable narrative. It’s relies very much on mood and has a sensual feel that draws you in. Silences and expressions carry as much weight – if not more – than the spoken word. Images in the background or foreground of scenes inform and enrich the story just as much as the characters who fill the frame. However, while the film is stylish it is never flashy or facile. If anything, writer/director Barry Jenkins (working from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney) gives Moonlight a vivid hyper-realism that makes you feel you are right there with the Chiron, the lead character, as he trods his difficult path through the years. He is played in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood by, respectively, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. All three are excellent.
Chiron’s journey begins in childhood when he is belittled by the other kids by calling him “Little.” His daily school life consists of bullying and harassment. However, one fateful day he is “rescued” by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) who provides Chiron with the paternal guidance he’s been missing. Around that same time, Chiron’s hard-working mother Paula (Naomie Harris) falls in with the wrong man and begins a downward spiral into drug addiction. Juan and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monae) provide Chiron with safe harbor from the increasingly turbulent storms of his life. These trials continue into his teenage years when he faces escalating attacks from Terrell (Patrick Decile), as well as Paula’s hitting rock bottom with her addiction.
Fortunately, Chiron’s deepening relationship with childhood pal Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) – who has always shown him kindness – provides some respite from his daily hardships. Unfortunately, this growing connection is brutally cut short by Terrell’s machinations – which drives a wedge between Chiron and Kevin and prompts an enraged Chiron to make a fateful decision that will irrevocably alter the course of his life. Ultimately, Chiron finds himself in adulthood following in the steps of Juan – working as a hardened drug dealer.
It’s in this third act of Moonlight that the various “islands” of the story must make a choice: bridge the gap between them – or remain isolated from one another. Paula, now a recovering addict trying to help others, reaches out to Chiron for forgiveness in what is the best scene of the film. Chiron also receives a call from the past when Kevin contacts him, wanting to re-connect. This leads to the quietly powerful finale of the film that, with images and hardly any words, drives home our basic need to connect with another human being.
In addition to the trio of actors playing Chiron in the various stages of his life, the rest of the cast is stunning. Mahershala Ali’s layered performance as Juan merits the Oscar he won as Best Supporting Actor last year. The scene in which he admits to Chiron that he is a drug dealer, and his wordless reaction to Chiron’s disappointment, is what great acting is about. Even after Juan departs the action, you somehow feel that he is still there – especially in the third act when Chiron is following in his steps. It’s a performance that is not at all showy but is all the more powerful because of its quiet humanity.
Naomie Harris was also nominated for the difficult role of Paula, the troubled mother who starts out good but then goes to hell and back with drug problems. When you consider that Harris had to film this complex role in only three days, it becomes clear just how gifted she is. I have to say that Harris is my favorite thing about this film, and her scene in the last third of the film wherein she atones for her endless failings of Chiron never fails to move me. Harris didn’t win the Oscar but she could have easily done so if it she didn’t already have competition from the equally-stellar Viola Davis for Fences. Harris has done a fine job of balancing roles like Eve Moneypenny in the Bond films with less mainstream ones like Paula here – and I look forward to seeing more of her multi-faceted work.
Another trio of actors who deserve praise are Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland, who portray Chiron’s kindred spirit, Kevin, as a child, teenager, and adult. In the end, Moonlight is a quiet love story between Chiron and Kevin and the arc of their relationship from rowdy kids, to curious teens, to beaten-down adults who still have the courage to hope for something better, would not have been as tender as it is without the right mix of actors at each stage. Fortunately, Jenkins had the perfect ensemble and Moonlight is all the stronger for it. It underscores the importance of human relationships of all kinds – reminding us that while we may all be islands onto our own, bridging the gap and forging a connection is always our choice to make.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.