Throughout Moonlight, there are a number of quiet, reflective, and quite beautifully played scenes, such as the one where Mahershala Ali’s Juan describes the source of the film’s title, a memory of a line an old woman told him as a boy in Cuba.
“In moonlight, black boys look blue,” she told him. “I’m gonna call you ‘blue’”
Moonlight opens in the sprawling ghettos of Miami, in an area where an abandoned tenement building makes the best refuge for a young adolescent on the run from some bullies. That’s where Ali’s Juan finds young Chiron, here called ‘Little’, played by Alex Hibbert.
Little won’t utter a word, not even to tell Juan his address, where to take him home. Chiron’s not just on the run from bullies, he’s also running from his life, which includes an drug-addicted mother played by Naomie Harris and a father he never knew.
Moonlight is broken into three distinct segments, each set five or so years apart, each focused on Chiron’s development as a young man. In the film’s middle third, he’s played by Ashton Sanders, and in the final third, ‘Black’ is played by Trevante Rhodes.
The names hold a special significance: ‘Little’ is the nickname others have given him, ‘Chiron’ the one his mother gave him, and ‘Black’ what he made for himself.
It’s Ali, who will win an Oscar for his work here, whose presence looms largest over the film. The actor appears only in the first third of the film, but his father figure is such an integral figure in the development of Chiron that we can feel his influence in each of the subsequent segments.
Alongside Chiron and his mother, there are two other constants throughout the story: Teresa (Janelle Monáe, who’s excellent here), Juan’s daughter and something of an adoptive mother figure, and Kevin, a young friend who grows up alongside Chiron, and may be more be more than a friend.
It’s the exploration of budding sexuality throughout Moonlight that makes the biggest impact; these particular themes, in this particular time and place, are something that we don’t often (if ever) get to see.
Moonlight was the surprise winner of the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture, going up against odds-on favorite La La Land. It might also be the second-lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in Oscar history, barely edging out 2009’s The Hurt Locker.
It’s one of the most intimate, small-scale films ever to win Best Picture, but it’s a deserving one. The lack of clear narrative may not engage some viewers, but those that invest in the film will reap many rewards.