For her first post-doctoral film (there may be more!), Millie brought us the most recent Best Picture winner, Barry Jenkins’ breakthrough work Moonlight.  Despite being named Best Picture, I think Moonlight managed to fly pretty well under the radar.  I get the feeling that a lot of folks (like myself) hadn’t really gone out of their way to see it.  “Oh, someday,” it’s easy to say about the movies you know you really ought to see, but too often ‘someday’ turns to ‘some other day’, which has a nasty habit of turning to ‘never’.  Millie made sure that for those of us who attend movie night, that ‘never’ never happened.

Moonlight is probably going to end up being a tough film to give an adequate review to – it’s slow, and not a lot happens as it immerses us in the life of the protagonist Chiron (pronounced Sha-RAWN).  The film is explicitly separated into three acts, and the conceit of the story, such as there is, is largely driven by a quote from the first act:

Juan: “Running around, catching a lot of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue.  You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

Chiron (as “Little”):  Is your name ‘Blue’?

Juan: Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Each of the three acts are titled by who the protagonist is for that moment in time: “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”.


We first see Little as he runs away from a pack of boys that is bullying and chasing him, fleeing into an abandoned housing project and hiding from them.  He is also seen by Juan, a local Miami drug kingpin, who extricates him from the building, but is unable to get Little to speak for quite some time.  (This actually is carried throughout the film, with none of Chiron’s instantiations being particularly loquacious.)  Seeing no other good option, Juan takes Little in for the night and eventually in the morning he and his girlfriend are able to coax out enough to return him home.

Little, for his part, is saddled with a deadbeat mother who fuels her drug addiction with prostitution money, and seeking out some sort of escape he ends up repeatedly running off to Juan’s place, and the two of them develop a friendship.

Amongst other things, Juan teaches Little to swim, but more importantly he acts as the father figure Little doesn’t have.  Aside from his friend Kevin, Little is bullied, and it’s implied by his own mother’s observations (and reinforced by the fact that they call him homosexual slurs) that his being gay is a large part of this bullying, though Little at this point doesn’t seem to have any idea of his sexuality.  Juan tells Little that it’s OK to be whoever he is, while at the same time discovering that it’s his own supply chain that is selling drugs to Little’s mother.  At the end of the act Little confronts Juan about whether he is the one selling them to her, and Juan can only hang his head.  This will be the last we see of Juan.


Now several years older, Chiron is an unnaturally skinny kid who is facing basically the same problems he was before.  He is being bullied, and his mother is still up to the same no-good she always has been, even kicking Chiron out from time to time while she is turning a trick.  Chiron’s only real place of escape is to Juan’s house – though only Juan’s girlfriend is present, and at some point an oblique reference to a funeral suggests that he has died for reasons we can only guess at.  To top it off, Chiron is now beginning to struggle with issues of sexuality, these being exacerbated by Kevin’s stories of sexual conquest.  The film begins to hint at the idea that Chiron has feeling for Kevin, and one night on a moonlit beach they have an unexpected sexual encounter.

The next day, however, the school bullies decide to put Kevin through a hazing ritual – and his task is to beat the stuffing out of the kid who is still the bullies’ favorite target, Chiron.  Despite their intimacy the night before, Kevin complies and injures Chiron severely.  One day later Chiron comes into school late, and with a purpose, and walking into one of his classrooms grabs a chair and viciously breaks it over the lead bully’s back and head.  It’s quite satisfying, but he gets driven off in a squad car nonetheless.


Many years later, Chiron, now going by the name of “Black”, is virtually unrecognizable.  Strong and muscle-bound, he is nothing like the bullied child he once was.  He is also, it turns out, a big-time drug dealer in Atlanta.  After his stint in juvenile hall for the chair incident he and his mother moved up to Atlanta, where, lacking any other form of gainful employment Black got into the street drug trade and worked his way up the chain.  It appears it’s all he knew how to do.  But one night he gets a phone call out of the blue from Kevin.  The call is a bit awkward, but Kevin invites him to come visit him in a restaurant where he is the cook if he ever returns to Miami.

Black works on making some sort of peace with his mother, and then drives down to Miami to drop in on Kevin unannounced.  Kevin, of course, has also done his stint in the joint, and he found his calling as a cook while on kitchen duty there.  He tells Black about his child, about being separated, from the child’s mother, and about how he has found fulfillment (if not money) in holding down a job and being a father.  Finally, they head back to Kevin’s place, where Black admits that he has not allowed anyone to be intimate with him since the night on the beach, and the film ends with Kevin comforting him in an embrace.

It’s a quietly powerful film, and I don’t know what else to say about it than that.  The third act, while having probably the least action of the three, was somehow the tensest for me, and perhaps it shouldn’t have been.  I don’t really know what Jenkins had in mind, but I found that I couldn’t quite divine what Black’s intentions were in returning to Miami to visit Kevin.  Kevin’s attack on him in the schoolyard so many years ago was quite the betrayal, and there’s never a word of forgiveness (or of apology) uttered between the two.  It seemed equally plausible to me, up to nearly the final moments of the film, that Black’s visit could have been for a quiet catharsis or for a quiet revenge.  We know Black is a dealer now, but we don’t really know how vicious he is or what his temper might be like.  Certainly the last time we saw him as Chiron he was enacting what revenge he could on his antagonist, and Black has so much more capacity for that now, and making peace with his mother seemed to foreshadow, at least a bit, drastic actions on his part.  But a quiet catharsis it was after all, and while the film leaves his entire life basically unresolved, it would be hard to argue it didn’t end perfectly.