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Moonlight (2016); And the Birth of Black Coming of Age Stories

October 31, 2016

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Coming of age stories often possess a visceral effect that can leaves its audiences feeling content and tingly inside. Usually, a few wacky hijinks come into play before a film’s protagonist is able to transcend the odds against them in order to explore first love and find their footing in a sea of awkwardness. Audiences usually get a kick out of coming of age tales because in some ways, we’ve all been there before. First loves and those strange feelings that emerge when you leave childhood but haven’t grown into adulthood yet is universal. What Berry Jenkins does so casually and cleverly with his feature film debut, Moonlight, is take these elements and flip them on its head. Moonlight is a reminder that while we all experience similar realities of being a tween; hating our parents and catching sight of who we are in our middle years, there’s an intersection at which some people’s experiences are far removed from what Hollywood has shown us for decades.

Moonlight’s protagonist is Chiron, and his coming of age is far too real, and achingly heartbreaking. His transition from boyhood into adulthood is taken into his own hands, but the tray that molds him is undoubtedly the environment he is born into. Chiron begins the film as a reserved little boy who often stares into space and would rather run away from a fight than confront it. Because of this, he is often singled out by his peers who sense that something is different about Chiron. Like many youths who come to see the world as black and white when a lack of proper representation and education is bestowed upon them, his peers chose to hate what they don’t understand and often beat the child for his “funny” tendencies. This, coupled with a home life of a mother (Naomie Harris) struggling to stay mentally present through drug addiction, leaves Chiron meek. His defense mechanism causes him to go inward and shut everyone out. One of the few who cracks through this hard exterior is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who becomes the father figure he never had. Along with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), Chiron finds brief asylum from the ails of living in the hood.

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That is until time passes and life goes on taking some people away from Chiron and keeping others to evolve and become larger obstacles, or escapes, in his life. It is in this era of life that Chiron realizes the truth behind Juan’s words to him in his youth: “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Chiron’s life is segmented into three parts— three hats he wears to get by in life. As a youth he’s Little (Alex Hibbert) as a teen— Chiron (Ashton Sanders). In adulthood he becomes Black (Trevante Rhodes). It’s in these modifications of personality and transitions between pivotal life moments that Jenkins’ ability as a writer and visionary truly shines in bold vibrancy.

Jenkins uses dream-based imagery drenched in pinks and blues highlighted in implicit fluorescents to breathe life into Chiron’s growth in Miami, Florida. Water and air act as prime elemental forces that keeps  Chiron satiated in times of provisional emptiness. Chiron seems most stable with his head in ice water, his body in warm water, his hands riding the wave of air while in a car and most peaceful when he feels the breeze from the ocean on his face. Jenkins highlights these moment by wisely embracing minimalist sounds, a beautiful soundtrack and tight closeups throughout the film to show us nearly every nuanced expression and sedated emotion  painted on Chiron’s face.

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Moonlight is being heralded as a “masterpiece” by many critics.  While I think this film is arguably the best of the year and a culturally significant work of art, and all the other hyperboles critics love to throw out so their quotes gets plaster over movie posters and in commercials, “masterpiece” is term that treads dangerous waters as it sets up expectations that a film is perfect. Moonlight has its shortcomings. In part, its use of overly indulgent dream sequences feels forced, assuming that in dreams we’re able to see ourselves as we are. These moments are rooted too much in reality, marring the surrealistic atmosphere Jenkins attempts to portray. Similarly, I understand that Jenkin’s choice to follow Chiron’s journey through tight intimate close-ups and a camera that rarely stays still is an effect intended to draw the audience into Chiron’s world, but this element adds a constant layer of tension that feels unnecessary and distracting to the overall story.

This isn’t to denote from any greatness that Moonlight possesses, because make no mistake about it, this is a film that stands on its own two feet alongside paramount pictures of our time. Moonlight is significant for showing the coming of age for a homosexual man of color living in the hood—something major studios rarely ever touch despite the large number of men who experience this journey. It’s a testament to how nature effects our being. It’s the heartbreaking reality that shines light into how people grow into the individuals they become after having who they are supposed to be beaten into them by society. A childhood friend telling Chiron in his older age that he’s become someone he’s not. As Chiron’s journey shows, it’s easy to become someone others don’t expect you to be. Not because you’re trying to be something you aren’t, but because societal forces can morph you into who you have to be to survive. Moonlight is a powerful tale that will hopefully give rise to new stories for Black and Brown people from the hood on screen and give minorities of color the freedom to finally express our world from our own eyes.

SEE IT. And  remember all the Duquan’s and Michael Lee’s of the world (The Wire).

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