The prominence of Moonlight in most Oscar predictions indicates that maybe the Academy is making a little progress in its attempt to become more inclusive of African-American filmmaking and culture.  It is a small budget independent film that seeks more to delve into the character of one person than to tell a sprawling story.  I’m not even sure that it is making a statement about poverty and racism in the country.  The poverty is a backdrop, something that’s taken for granted and there are no white characters in the film.

Chiron, played by three different actors in the film’s three sections, grows up on the tough streets of Miami.  His mother, played by Naomi Harris, is an addict who is sexually promiscuous and neglectful.  He’s on his own most of the time.  Juan, a drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali, the guy who played Cottonmouth in the Luke Cage series, finds Chiron, then called Little and played by Alex R. Hibbert, hiding from a bunch of local kids intent on beating him up.  Little is shy and won’t talk at first.  He’s slow to trust Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monae, but soon he realizes that they care about him more than his own mother.  Juan tells Little to never let anyone else define or categorize him.  Little spends pretty much the rest of the film ignoring that advice.

The film follows Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders in the High School section and Trevante Rhodes in the final section, as he deals with the hardships of his upbringing and his sexuality.  Chiron is a compelling character and you sympathize with him.  The three actors and the director, Barry Jenkins, do a good job of convincing you that this is the same person growing and changing over the years.

There are many good performances but the one that stands out is Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of Juan.  He shows a human side to this street operator, someone who’s always scanning the horizon looking for threats or opportunities.  But deep down, he is compassionate and even caring.  He has wisdom to pass on to Chiron and does so without the edge and the attitude that others in that profession have.  And finally when Little asks him if he is a drug dealer, Juan’s reaction is devastating as he bows his head and admits it, admits he is part of the problem.  It’s a great performance.

Moonlight is a thoughtful film with good performances and direction.


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