It is rare to see a film depict the internal struggles of a young, black boy as he grows up in a violent, drug-infested neighborhood.
But thanks to African-American director Barry Jenkins, that rareness becomes a reality in “Moonlight,” his adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
The Los Angeles-based director’s approach paid off: “Moonlight” won the Film Critics Award and has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards.
Contrary to films like “Boyz N’ the Hood” that showcase a young boy trying to have hope for a life that is the opposite of his gang-infested, poverty-stricken neighborhood, Jenkins’ “Moonlight” shows a boy who is not only wrestling with his circumstances, but also with his identity.
And Jenkins and McCraney know their subject; they both grew up in the same poor Miami inner city neighborhood depicted in the film.
The film has three chapters that focus on the life of a boy named Chiron.
The first chapter titled “Little” (a nickname given by Chiron’s bullies) shows that Chiron’s childhood is filled with pain, neglect and confusion.
In the mist of seeking answers to life while living with a drug-abusing mother, Chiron ironically finds guidance with drug-dealer Juan and his girlfriend Teresa.
Juan quickly becomes a father figure to Chiron, teaching him how to swim. He also stresses to Chiron to know what kind of man he wants to be in this world.
After the first chapter of the film, Juan is never seen nor heard from again, leaving Chiron only to turn to Teresa.
It’s strictly up to the viewer to speculate what happens to Juan.
In the second chapter Chiron’s teen years do not get any better. It is filled with bullying, abandonment and identity issues.
He is severely bullied by a group of boys, especially their leader Terrel, who constantly labels him a “faggot” simply because he is quiet, shy and wears tight jeans.
Terrel, the lead bully, even harasses him with questions on whether or not he has been intimate with boys.
On top of that, he has to deal with his mother who takes money from him to buy drugs. She kicks him out the house each time she meets with men, forcing him to seek shelter with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa.
But his mother insists that she is doing her best, saying Teresa “ain’t no better” than her.
Along with Teresa, Chiron has another person he can turn too when things get tough – his childhood friend Kevin.
Kevin is the opposite of Chiron. He is a womanizer who brags about his sexual exploits with women.
But Kevin is kind and supportive to Chiron. Their friendship turns into something more after Kevin consoles Chiron one day after Chiron is bullied and his mother has kicked him out of the house. The two friends kiss.
But all those feelings are shattered when Kevin falls into peer-pressure by Terrel to beat up Chiron.
At school the next day Chiron, enraged, picks up a chair and smashes it over Terrel, knocking him unconscious for a few seconds.
Chiron is escorted by police in handcuffs. He and Kevin exchange a long and intense gaze at each other as Chiron is put into the police vehicle.
In the third and final chapter of the film titled “Black,” Chiron is now a grown man living in Atlanta. He is just as lonely, lost and confused as he was when he was a teenager.
No one, not Juan, Teresa, or Kevin, is at his side. And he is now a drug dealer just like his childhood mentor, Juan.
One night, he gets a voicemail from his mother asking him how he’s been and when is he going to come visit her. Chiron hangs up the phone, and goes to bed.
Later that night, Chiron is woken up with a phone call from Kevin. The two haven’t spoken since their high school days.
Kevin is now a chef still living in Miami. He has a child from a failed relationship.
He asks Chiron to visit him at the restaurant in Miami and promises to cook something for him if he does. On his way to Miami, Chiron stops by to see his mother, now in recovery and staying at rehab facility.
“They’re allowing me to stay and work as long as I like,” she says. “Might as well help other folks. Get myself out of trouble.”
She apologizes to Chiron for being a poor mother, saying that he doesn’t have to love her, but she will always love him.
When Chiron and Kevin re-unite, Kevin fulfills his promise of cooking Chiron his signature meal.
Chiron asks Kevin why he called him, and Kevin says that a song — Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” — reminded him of Chiron.
Kevin then punches out the song to play on the restaurant’s jukebox and walks back to their table with a slight grin.
Back at Kevin place, Chiron tells Kevin that he is the only person that he has even been with intimately.
Chiron then rests his head on Kevin’s chest. Then there is a powerful flashback: Chiron is child again. It’s dark and he is looking at the ocean. The camera zooms in behind him. He then turns around and faces the camera in a close up on his face and the film fades out.
Critics have applauded Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” A New York Times critic commending the film’s “open-mindedness, its resistance to easy summary or categorization.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Steven Gallaway praised the film for its relatability in showing that the film’s characters are just like us – “looking for love.”
Without a doubt, this film highlights the important theme of being strong when our circumstances pressure us to be weak.
Chiron was labeled a “faggot” for simply being quiet, ridiculed for being different, and forced at an early age to figure the world out on his own.
However the film hints that Chiron may have discovered one aspect of his identity – his intense love for Kevin.
But maybe this intense love did not come from his ability to accept who he was, but from instead, his pain?
The pain in not knowing how to navigate through the struggles of life, and unable to embody the definition of what it means to be man when convinced by the world that he wasn’t.
Perhaps the goal Jenkins and McCraney want in this film is for you to decide the answer.
Nonetheless, we are not always what people call us, nor are we our pain.
In the mist of our suffering, an identity is formed; an identity that we are still learning to become, but confidence in knowing what we are not.
Isaiah 66:9 says it best, “I will cause no pain without allowing something new to be formed, says the Lord.”