By: Joseph Longo
A little boy turns on the stove. Next, the bathtub faucet. He heats a pot of water, pours it into the tub and mixes in dish soap. He’s home alone. Sitting in the makeshift bath, he cups the soapy water and raises his hands above his head before unleashing on to his body. Alone and dejected, he cleans himself.
Barry Jenkins' superb 2016 film "Moonlight" follows one deeply-compelling boy’s life at three different ages: Little, Chiron and Black.
The movie originated as the semi-autobiographical unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Years later, Jenkins came on board as writer and director. He knew McCraney’s tale of growing up in Liberty City, Miami, with a drug addicted mother; he’d experienced most of it himself.
"Moonlight" was the last movie I saw in the "Obama years." It served as an unexpectedly cathartic transition into a new administration likely to be unkind to today’s Chirons.
The first black president overseeing the landmark passage of marriage equality. Chiron's story likely wouldn’t have been produced or critically acclaimed eight years ago, or even two. Obama’s legacy allows this story to be told.
It’s no easy film to watch. Moonlight focuses on a boy foreign to guidance and love. An alien in his own community.
Little is tailor-made for a program like My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s initiative to promote the lives of young black men.
He eventually finds his “keeper” in Juan, a crack dealer. Sensing himself in the young boy, Juan divulges his similar upbringing while on a trip to the beach.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be,” Juan says.
The remark, albeit a little too deliberately, sets up the major focus of the film: identity. The relationship between Little and Juan isn’t stale. Juan is no wise old man; Little’s abrupt presence rattles his sense of purpose.
Played masterfully by Mahershala Ali, he creates a hard demeanor with an innate sensitivity peaking out past the golden chains and grill. Juan sees the ill-effects of his career manifested in the life of a lost child — a child he used to be.
But that’s the success; there’s beauty in the pain. Cinematographer James Laxton captures sadness in a tropical, bright Miami.
While at the beach, Juan teaches Little to swim. Laxton immerses the camera bobbing up, down and submerged in the water by a tide. Juan isn’t just teaching him to swim; he’s giving him the tools to swim away from his childhood.
Even in the most standard of scenes, Laxton demands wrought emotional responses.
Chiron spends much of one night aboard subways and platforms since his mother won’t let him come home. He eventually finds himself at the beach where a clandestine encounter occurs with Kevin, a childhood friend.
It’s a tough scene to watch, in part because Laxton so intimately frames each shot. Chiron rests his head on a subway windowsill, dejected. He wanders down to an eerily empty beach while palm trees sway in the night sky. Each shot intrudes further and further in to the yearnings of an isolated child.
In the third act, the two men reunite and reflect on their formative years. Neither of their lives turned out as expected with stints in prison and complex family woes.
A decade later, Kevin finally found his purpose. "It's a life," Kevin says about now living as a single bisexual dad on parole working as a night cook.
Black isn’t there yet. But as he tells Kevin, "What do you expect?"
Growing up a gay, black boy with a drug-addicted mother in the hood of Miami, Black’s life isn’t “saved” by a pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality dominating conservative thinking.
However, Chiron isn’t the only one on a journey to self-actualization. His mother Paula too goes through her own metamorphosis, although not one immediately helpful to her son. Naomie Harris brings an understanding — even love — for a working mom’s slow descent into drug addiction.
Even after shaking down her deeply isolated teenage son for money, she demands he go to school. He must better himself, though his environment gives him every reason not to.
Praise again goes to Jenkins, who based Paula off of his own mother. That’s the success of the role; there’s a truth — an identity — behind the character. She’s not just another coked-out absent mom. She’s a former health care professional who, after her own rehabilitation, returns the aid in assisting other addicts. These are characters no doubt dependent on the Affordable Care Act for their health.
Each scene is accompanied by a haunting, almost Gregorian score. Nicholas Britell’s classical composition starkly contrasts to the inner-city setting. That’s the beauty of "Moonlight"; the tug between what is seen and what is felt.
That’s also Chiron's biggest struggle. Who he is and who people see are vastly different. Sure, he’s a poor, gay, black boy, but he also is a caretaker, a student and an individual — that’s intersectionality.
"Moonlight" leads the 2017 awards season with 96 wins. It too picked up eight Oscar nominations. Though, "La La Land" received 14 nominations and tied the all-time record previously set by "All About Eve" and matched by "Titanic."
"La La Land" is receiving praise for ushering in a return to Hollywood's "Golden Age." While undoubtedly a superb, grandiose musical, it’s just not a film indicative of the current political and social landscape. It doesn’t have to be, but it sure picked the wrong year to premiere.
Like Trump’s election campaign, "La La Land" is wild, crazy and fun to watch. "Moonlight" isn’t. It’s a look at the type of people Trump wants to reform: inner-city dwellers, drug lords and the incarcerated.
It’s more than just honest, engrossing storytelling; it’s a memento to a now bygone administration's views of culture, politics and expression.