“I ain’t no boy,” Chiron says at the police station, as he ices his bruised face, which has just been smashed by Kevin, a guy whom Chiron thought was his closest friend. Chiron’s physical pain is nothing compared to the feeling of betrayal, and this is a particularly cruel treachery. But betrayal seems to be the only consistent factor in Chiron’s relationships. Chiron feels betrayed by his drug-addicted mother, by Juan, a kindly, gentle father figure who happens to be a drug dealer, and now by Kevin: they kissed on the beach once, and the kiss went further, a moment of intense passion, an unexpected urge between them, one bound to generate confused feelings, guilt, and shame, in a world that is militantly homophobic. Betrayal has tainted every relationship in Chiron’s life (with the exception of Teresa, Juan’s wife, played by the fabulous Janelle Monáe, whom readers may recognize as one of the three stars of Hidden Figures), rendering them as ineffectual as saltwater to a parched mouth.
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Moonlight was, for me, the most moving film I saw last year. Although I loved La La Land, which has become trendy to hate on, Moonlight deserves to win the Best Picture Oscar (I’m not sure it has a chance, especially against a popular favorite that’s an adorable, Hollywood-obsessed confection.) Where La La Land feels clever and charming and happily content with its own nostalgic view of a particularly sun-dappled world, Moonlight feels deeply urgent and lyrical and honest about a world where the sun doesn’t bring warmth so much as blood-boiling heat.
In its story of a young black boy becoming a man, Moonlight casts three different actors to play Chiron, in three different stages of his life: as a young boy, called “Little” (Alex Hibbert), as a teenager struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, the only time when he’s referred to by his given name (and played by Ashton Sanders), and as a grown man, now called “Black” (played by Trevante Rhodes). Somehow, these three actors have created a seamless vision of Chiron, guided by the knowing instincts of writer-director Barry Jenkins.
The scene I want to bring into focus involves Kevin’s betrayal of Chiron. It’s really the only scene in which Chiron acts out because of his anger. Being both black and gay is a particularly difficult battle to fight for Chiron, who’s already endured enough torment when a high school bully pits Kevin against him, urging Kevin to “knock his faggot-ass down.” These are boys playing at manhood, questioning their own vulnerabilities, their own insecurities, which they see as signs that they are not men. Insecurities like these must be purged, by violence. And so, out of fear and hatred of himself, Kevin strikes Chiron, in a modern-day Judas kiss.
Chiron’s anger wells up inside him. He’s used to keeping quiet, he’s learned the value of not stirring things up. But while keeping control of his anger worked for him as a child, it is no longer enough, or he is no longer able to control it. But it’s not Kevin who receives Chiron’s fury, but the instigating bully. Is Chiron sparing Kevin? Cutting him some slack? Or maybe, does Chiron realize that Kevin has in a sense already punished himself in the act of betrayal? Regardless, when Chiron returns to school, he coolly walks into a classroom and smashes a chair over the head of the boy that goaded Kevin into hitting him. In that moment, the consequences of attacking the unsuspecting punk matter little; the feeling of vindication acts like a mantra that cannot be ignored; there’s something intoxicating about this revenge, both for Chiron and the viewer.
Moonlight is an intoxicating film, after all. And this scene encapsulates the complexities at work here. Moonlight explores the world from a very particular angle, and in so doing, offers us something very true: We cannot expect to survive in our own heads forever. Sooner or later, we crave human connection. Chiron, having bottled up so much, walks around with very thick armor (as I’ve already mentioned, he has good reason to be so guarded). Yet the feelings and the thoughts and the workings of his mind are palpable, as powerful as thunderclouds. There’s a tempest inside him, but there is also tenderness and love and compassion, too.
Moonlight is a gracious movie, one that deeply feels for its protagonist without offering him up as some object of pity. Instead, the film offers Chiron a moment of grace: In the third act, when “Black” appears, just as quiet and guarded as ever, but now physically tougher, harder, more in control, Kevin re-enters his life; the bad blood between them has dissipated, and what’s left is a lingering memory of that night on the beach. Moonlight wonders what might have been, had Chiron’s life been less fraught with hopelessness; but it also finds hope anyway; it isn’t too late for him to carve out some kind of happiness, some kind of life for himself.
What's your favorite scene from Moonlight?
Who do you think will take home the Best Actor prize at this year's ceremony?