by Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
Stories are an important way for people to know each other, and in the story told in ‘Moonlight’ we are provided with dynamic visual embellishments and gifted actors and a director that bring this tough story about a tough life painfully alive.
For many viewers, this film will provide first-hand experience of an environment and life style with which we are completely unfamiliar. Although the plight of the impoverished in this country is often documented and publicized, there is still the opportunity for many of us to remain distanced from it. Not so in ‘Moonlight’.
The setting for the film is the Liberty City section of Miami where Director Barry Jenkins grew up. In a recent TV interview Jenkins said he never saw a white person until after high school.
When we first meet Chiron (first played by Alex Hibbert), who is a young black child, he is hiding from other kids bent on bullying him. He is skinny, quiet, reserved. We see his public housing home, his single mother (Naomie Harris) who struggles with drug addiction, his neighborhood, and the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan kindly and authentically cares for Chiron, while effectively picking at our stereotypes, exemplifying the good we see in every person, and causing viewers to recognize the juxtaposition of his kindness to Chiron and his contribution to the distress that drugs bring into Chiron’s life.
We spend time with Chiron at various stages in his life. In three separate chapters in the film, “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black”. We get to know him intimately. Like the centaur from Greek mythology with whom he shares his name, Chiron is unique. And, along with Chiron, we learn he is gay.
Chiron moves through his life, and we move right along with him. He moves from being a quiet, reserved, skinny kid to a quietly questioning and searching teenager (played by Ashton Sanders) to an aloof, shut down adult (played by Trevante Rhodes). The strengths of this film are many. Written by gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, we are given a purposeful film with language that is real, not trite.
Viewers are given the rare gift of intimacy and connection to a story, parts of which they may have heard, but did not know. This life story is one that resonates, in some unexplainable way, with the life of the viewer, who ultimately, like Chiron, in the most astonishing and grace-filled way, faces redemption, cautious hope and love.
And even a cautious joy that brings to mind that even at the grave we sing “Alleluia”
Bonnie Anderson is a very active lay leader in her parish, diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church. She is an experienced community organizer and lives in suburban Detroit. Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest in Baltimore, Maryland and a former broadcast news executive. But don’t expect only east coast urban perspectives here. As it turns out, they both grew up in Southern California. They blog about films and faith at Faith Reels