Monday, December 26, 2016

One on One: Moonlight

Mahershala Ali (right) and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight.

I’ve never seen a coming-of-age movie quite like Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. It’s the story of an African-American kid from a poor neighborhood in Miami told in three parts, each one capturing the boy, Chiron, at a different age: nine, sixteen, twenty-six. (Given the three-act structure, it’s not surprising to find out that the source material is a play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.) In act one Chiron, known as Little and played by Alex Hibbert, lives with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who turns tricks for crack money. Tiny and delicate, Little is bullied by the other boys; the only one of his peers who shows him any kindness is Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tries to teach him how to stand up for himself in a fight. Little is hiding from the other kids in an abandoned house sometimes used by junkies when Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, finds him and takes him home to his girl friend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) for a meal. Little is shy – and stubborn – to the point of non-communication; it isn’t until the next day that Juan and Teresa get him to tell them where he lives, and when Juan drives him home Paula isn’t grateful for his generosity, since he’s the man she buys rock from. Still, Little, who has no male role models and has to negotiate his mother’s substance-fueled moods, adopts Juan and Teresa as surrogate parents, and they’re tender and patient with him, riding out his silences and answering the questions he can’t ask anyone else. The other boys make fun of the way he walks and holds himself and call him a faggot; their merciless ragging has the effect of causing him to struggle with his sexuality before he’s old enough to even see himself in sexual terms. When he asks Juan and Teresa what a faggot is, Juan tells him it’s “a word used to make gay people feel bad,” and in the macho street culture of the neighborhood Juan’s instinctive egalitarianism and lack of bias, which come from his openheartedness, feel like a small miracle. He and Teresa are a gift to this brooding, complicated kid, who alternates between avoiding everyone’s gaze and seeking to make direct contact, his huge, demanding eyes fixed on Juan or Teresa or Paula or Kevin. Juan treats Little like a son, counseling him that he has to make up his own mind about who he’s going to be. He never lies to the boy; when Little finds out that he deals dope to his mother and confronts him about it, Juan doesn’t deny it, though for the first time you can see the shame in his face. Clearly he’s not the right paternal figure to get the kid through his troubled childhood, but he’s the only one Little’s got.

The children’s scenes show the influence of David Gordon Green’s George Washington, though Jenkins doesn’t quite have the eye or the technique to pull off this kind of poetic, experimental approach, at least not at this point. But he makes a noble try, and you always get the idea of what he’s going for. On the other hand, the dialogue is remarkably accomplished. It’s vernacular and sparse, but finely honed; Jenkins (or McCraney – I have no idea how closely the script hews to the play it’s based on) doesn’t settle for the undifferentiated realist banality of most American screenwriters but shapes the lines to articulate the thoughts of the characters so they always sound fresh. This comparison may sound odd, but I kept thinking of Robert Towne’s script for Personal Best, his 1982 movie about young female pentathletes training for the Olympics: the dialogue sounds perfectly ordinary at first because Towne doesn’t want to draw attention to it – he’s making a movie about people who express themselves primarily with their bodies – but days and weeks after you’ve seen it, you realize you can remember specifically what the characters said to each other, and that you can hear the differences between them in their turn of phrase. Moonlight’s screenplay has these same virtues.

What Jenkins is truly amazing at is working with actors. Moonlight is only his second feature, and in his first, Medicine for Melancholy, an ambling 2008 two-hander about two young African Americans in San Francisco who have a one-night stand at a party and then stumble toward a relationship, he hadn't figured out how to direct his actors, Tracey Heggins and The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac; they kept doing the same things over and over. But in the intervening years, working on short films and one TV episode, he's turned into an ace acting coach. Perhaps he lucked out in getting Ali and Harris, who give stunning performances, and Monáe, yet one more pop singer who turns out to be a talented movie actor as well. (You can also see her this season in Hidden Figures, the movie about African-American women employed at NASA in the early days of the space race, where she has a sassy, witty presence so unlike Teresa’s unselfconscious elegance and strength that we might be watching two different actresses.) But the fact is that everyone on screen is superb, including all the kids, and the performance Jenkins gets out of Alex Hibbert as Little takes your breath away. Harris’ go-for-broke acting has a bruised experiential quality; she goes so deep with Paula’s anger and pride (and, at the end, self-recrimination) that she never seems to be merely acting. And it’s hard to keep your eyes off Ali, with his Indian-warrior face and broad, disarming grin; he’s a magnificent camera subject as well as a superb actor. The first time I recall seeing him was in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where he played Taraji P. Henson’s husband Tizzy. Now he’s become a familiar faces: there he is, underused but magnetic, again matched romantically with Henson in Hidden Figures, and he was excellent as the runaway slave Moses in Free State of Jones last summer. Ali’s unusual combination of physical qualities – his eagle-eyed wariness sets off an almost silken handsomeness – and his uncanny sensitivity make him the ideal actor to play a character who is simultaneously at ease in his king-of-the-street position and much more than that role requires him to be. The movie is an interrogation of the meaning of masculinity set in a place where there seems to be only one way to define it, yet it keeps coming up with unexpected answers. In one way, Ali embodies the complexity of masculinity during the first third of the film, before Chiron grows old enough to wrestle with it for himself.

Ashton Sanders in Moonlight.

Ali bows out of the movie at the end of act one; Juan has just died (the movie doesn’t tell us how) when Jenkins moves ahead to the disastrous teenage section of Chiron’s narrative. Chiron – now played by Ashton Sanders, who looks like he’s carrying the world on his shoulders; that face, as wide-eyed and delicate as Hibbert’s, has softened into a permanent look of anguish and terror – still retreats to Teresa’s whenever Paula sends him away because she’s expecting a john. The cruelty of his classmates has grown unendurable. A tough kid named Terrel (Patrick Decile) threatens him in the schoolyard and insults his mother in the street; he doesn’t hold back from making insinuating comments about his sexuality even in the classroom. But Chiron still has Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome), affable and charismatic and life-embracing, who jokes with him, gives him the nickname Black, tells him stories about making love to his girl friend that fill Chiron’s dreams – though it’s Kevin and not the girl Chiron focuses on – and, in a sequence that is both lyrical and audacious, gets high with him and gives him his first taste of gay sex. (The warm, soft-toned cinematography by James Laxton is almost magical in this scene.) And then, egged on publicly by Terrel and incapable of backing down, Kevin betrays Chiron, in a schoolyard fight. The consequence is an unanticipated act of violence on Chiron’s part that sends him to prison.

Moonlight is about a boy’s efforts to find out who he is, and each of the three acts is named for one of his identities: “Little,” “Chiron” and finally “Black ,” where, in his mid-twenties, he’s living in Atlanta and selling drugs just as Juan did, with a respectful – intimidated – teenage confederate just as Juan had in the opening scene of the movie. Trevante Rhodes, who plays this latest version of Chiron, is big and muscular and loaded down with bling (including a pair of removable silver braces that make his mouth glitter), but if he carries himself with an unprecedented physical confidence, he doesn’t seem psychologically comfortable in this new body. He’s still a reluctant, restrained conversationalist, and you keep getting glimpses of the shy but probing little boy from the first act. (One of the bonus pleasures of the movie is that each of the three actors who play Chiron is even better than his predecessor; Rhodes is a knockout.) Act three is about what happens when Chiron gets a phone call late one night from Kevin (the marvelous André Holland), who’s tracked him down in Georgia. Kevin is now working as a cook in a small Miami restaurant; when Chiron goes home to see his mother, living full-time and working in the rehab facility that helped her to reclaim her life, he stops by Kevin’s restaurant to take him up on the meal his old friend promised to cook for him if he ever made it back home. And so the movie ends with a reunion between the two young men that is perhaps its most moving and memorable scene.

The title of McCraney’s original play offers a hint of what the title of the movie signifies, and links up with a scene in which Juan tells Little about an old Cuban lady who nicknamed him Blue when he was a kid running around barefoot in the moonlight. In Moonlight Makes Black Boys Look Blue I hear an echo of the Louis Armstrong classic “Black and Blue,” which equates being black with feeling blue, but I think the film’s title also encompasses the idea of moonlight as a revealer of secrets, truths that seem less harsh than they might in the light of day, intimacies. The movie is built on a series of two-character scenes between Chiron and the figures who dominate his imagination: Paula, Juan, Teresa, Kevin. (There’s also a ferocious exchange between Juan and Paula.) I can’t say enough about how good these scenes are – about the subtle shadings of emotion that Jenkins gets out of the actors and the unrushed rhythms and the unceasing process of discovery, not just for Chiron but for all five of the characters, that is dramatized in them. Moonlight is one of the most intimate movie experiences I can remember.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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