This movie of a gay black man’s journey from childhood to adulthood has gained rave reviews, and a Golden Globe for best drama, and I approached Moonlight wondering if the the acclaim was for its storytelling, or for it focussing on a community severely under represented in mainstream cinema. The answer? Probably both.
The worth of Moonlight is pretty clear. It’s a serious and respectful treatment. It’s tastefully done, and largely devoid of melodrama. It shows Chiron as a young boy, then a teenager, and then an adult, confronted with bullying, taunting, a mother addicted to drugs, and, thankfully for Chiron, some support. It feels like an honest attempt to show how a black gay male has to deal with the world, and with his own sexuality.
The three actors who play Chiron – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – all do a fine job conveying the character’s turmoil. I cared about what happened to Chiron throughout the film, and hoped he would find some peace with himself, and would find love in his life.
The story arc largely works well, and it’s driven by concern about what will happen to Chiron. Will he get literally get beaten to death at school or on the streets, will he resolve his relationship with troubled mother Paula, played by Naomie Harris, and escape the world of drugs he’s grown up in? Even his one major benefactor, Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, is a dealer. And how will his relationship with close friend Kevin be resolved?
So that’s all good, but some concerns bubbled away as I watched the film. The first was to do with Juan, the drug dealer. I never felt I knew why he wanted to help Chiron. For some time I even wondered if he was a predator. And I found the depiction of the character a little confusing (this is not to do with Mahershala Ali’s acting) although I do not know about Miami street drug culture, so my own bias may be at play here. But Juan is shown to be a typical dealer. Drives a cool car with big wheels, has diamond studs and a swagger. He checks up on his sellers on the street corner. So he’s making a living dealing drugs that will cause misery in his community. But he has compassion for one young kid who’s being chased by neighbourhood bullies? He brings Chiron into his middle class looking home, where his beautiful wife Teresa, played by Janelle Monae, is also caring and compassionate and never seems fazed by how her lifestyle is funded.
And to Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother Teresa. Harris’ face has been seen the world over playing Moneypenny alongside Daniel Craig’s James Bond, so it is a bold choice to cast a Brit as a Miami crack whore. Harris clearly has talent and attacks the role with skill and commitment, but the character felt a caricature at times, and not a consistent one at that. Example? Early on we see Teresa admonish Chiron and tell him he “gots” to do something, and then a few seconds later she punishes him by telling him his tv watching time has been “revoked”. Really? I found that jarring and inconsistent and a case of sloppy writing at best.
I had one other concern, but it occurs too close to the film’s ending to discuss here – I don’t want to spoil what is a touching and powerful conclusion to Moonlight. All these issues, although they distract, didn’t deter me from enjoying Moonlight overall. It’s a strong drama, well acted and intelligently put together and is worth the price of a ticket. And, as a white straight guy watching a story about a black gay guy’s search for romance, the fact that I got so enthralled in the story is a credit to those who made it.