Lifetime of struggles portrayed by three actors in ‘Moonlight’

by TYLER YORK//Online Editor

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On occasion, it can seem that life is split into chapters, each one starring a distinctly different version of the same person. “Moonlight” takes that idea to a wonderful, poignant extreme.

The plot of the movie “Moonlight” follows the three-part tale of a young black boy, Chiron, growing up in Miami. Each act of the film represents distinct personas he embodies at different times in his life, and they’re each titled after three of Chiron’s different nicknames. Chiron struggles to overcome a long list of rather adult adversities, including poverty, a drug-addicted mother, emotional abuse from those close to him, his own uncertainties about his sexuality, and his internal fight to understand and fully express his role in life.

Above almost everything else, and in some cases even above the brilliant acting, this film shines because it has a wonderfully striking, almost dreamlike, visual style that makes the production seem like a childhood memory. Most scenery is comprised of blue shades accenting the bare white backdrops, with hazy pinks scattered in some sunset shots. Color is used to great effect even in the transition scenes between the acts’ title cards, with red and blue acting as separators between the stages of Chiron’s life and personality.

There is a scene that sticks out as being beautifully shot that involves Chiron and his mother Paula involved in a stare-down across a dark hallway, with an ominous pink cast falling through the open door behind her. The gentle music, the slow-motion action, and the futility of her silent screams at Chiron as he stares blankly back at her are deeply unsettling, yet create a visual spectacle that works with a delicate touch to illustrate in no uncertain terms the relationship held by this mother and son.

Each actor who plays the three distinct versions of Chiron are phenomenal at allowing their individual roles to feed into a whole person, sadly detached from the world around him. Alex Herbert as “Little,” the elementary-school-aged Chiron, is meek and heartbreakingly numb, even at such an early age. Aston Sanders as Chiron in high school is wavering and afraid of getting too close. By the time Trevante Rhodes appears as “Black,” the older Chiron living in Atlanta, the character has completely closed the world out around him, deciding to fully lean into dealing drugs, which is a role in which he believes he can finally show the world that has scorned and pushed him that he can no longer be moved.

Each actor does an unbelievably nuanced job of depicting the internal turmoil of growing up the challenging combination of poor, black, and gay in an environment where many would struggle with any one of those individually. This multi-actor cohesion is only made more remarkable when it’s discovered that director Barry Jenkins made sure none of the actors portraying Chiron ever interacted, on-set or off. It’s outstanding that each actor could turn in such moving performances despite being so separate in their approach.

With other authentic performances from the likes of Naomi Harris as Paula, an addict and emotionally absent mother of Chiron, and a stoically three-dimensional portrayal of both drug dealer and role model Juan given by Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight” is led by a cast that is able to hand down a dazzling display of life that is at once tragic and touching.

There’s a lot to say about how “Moonlight” fared at the Academy Awards this year. Starting with the incredibly historic accolades, it is the first film with a completely black cast, the first LGBT film, and the second lowest-grossing film in the United States to ever win Best Picture. For his role as Juan, Mahershala Ali is also now the first Muslim ever to win an Oscar for acting. The awards rained down on “Moonlight” at the Oscars, and with absolutely every justification.

However, this year’s Oscars will likely go down in historical infamy for its botched delivery of the Best Picture award. The presenters’ card was given in error, and “La La Land” was announced the winner, only for the cast and producers of that film to have to inform “Moonlight” that it was, in fact, their win. It’s unfortunate that such a deserving win was overshadowed by the giant mistake, but both casts handled the incident with such respectful grace. Had it happened the other way, I imagine it would have gone exactly the same.

If you’re on the fence about seeing “Moonlight” just because it seemingly came out of nowhere to win Best Picture, let me be the one to inform you that there are more reasons to see this film than there are numbers to count them. It’s a coming-of-age story that is deeply beautiful, painful, and joyful, weaving a tale of hope and the human condition. It’s a message that we all deserve to be exactly who we really are. I give “Moonlight” 5 out of 5 stars.


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