By Zuri Nyla Anderson
Barry Jenkins’s ‘Moonlight’ thoroughly examines the complexities of generational trauma whilst bravely challenging the stereotypes of blackness and poorness. The backdrop of the film is a familiar one, a poor black neighborhood with rampant drug use and crime, but the characters of the film humanize this frequently dehumanized setting. The artful cinematography and use of classical and hip-hop music is not employed to show a cultural juxtaposition between rich and poor or white and black, but rather to state that the ‘ghetto’ is just as refined as the Opera House.
In three parts, ‘Moonlight’ follows the life of Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, and each chapter of his life teaches a new lesson. The first chapter teaches us about the vulnerability of being different. Chiron, also called ‘Little’ and later ‘Black,’ is different in that he is small and soft-spoken. He is often ridiculed and attacked for those differences by not only the kids from school, but by his own mother—who struggles with drug abuse. Ironically, Chiron begins to find his voice with the help of a mentor named Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, who happens to be a prominent drug dealer. Though the two major influences in Chiron’s life are both consumed in the world of drugs, they have profoundly different impacts on his life. Juan teaches him about manhood in a way that is free from toxic and rigid expectations. Juan also gives Chiron a stability that his mother could not, a roof over his head, and a surrogate mother in the form of his girlfriend Teresa—played by Janelle Monae. In Juan’s household, Chiron is given the freedom to choose who he will be and is taught skills that will help him in the future, such as swimming. In a sense, Juan’s presence allows Chiron to simply be a child—something the world does not allow of black kids. Juan also learns through Chiron the effects that his drug dealing has on children of his neighborhood. ‘Moonlight’ does a brilliant job of explaining, not excusing, the reasons why people hurt other people. That, perhaps, is the film’s greatest achievement.