Review: Moonlight’s Focus on Drugs, Sexuality Make It a Film for Our Times

On the surface, Moonlight is a heart-wrenching film about a young African-American boy coming to terms with his sexuality while growing up in the impoverished public housing projects of Miami. But the Golden Globe winner (Best Motion Picture—Drama) is much more than a compelling, poignant, and uncompromisingly relevant movie; it’s a provocative portrayal of the complex underbelly of American cities.

In artistic terms, the film is outstanding, earning its eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay, even if its pacing seems a bit too deliberate at times. Filmed on-site in Miami over 25 days, many scenes were shot in Liberty City housing projects where director/screenwriter (and Florida State University film school graduate) Barry Jenkins grew up. The film is tight, brooding, engrossing, and focused.

Adapted from the semi-autobiographical book In Moonlight Black Boys Looks Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the real-world dystopia that traps denizens of urban neighborhoods in big cities across the nation. For this reason the film speaks to a more universal condition and social problem.

Moonlight focuses on the character development of its protagonist, Chiron, and is told in three parts: Chiron as a bullied young kid derisively called “Little” (Alex Hibbert); then Chiron as a sexually confused teenage high school student (Ashton Sanders); and finally as a young man who adopts the simple but powerful street name of Black (Trevante Rhodes).

In the beginning, Little, who has been brutally picked on by his peers, is taken in by Juan (Mahershala Ali, Hidden Figures, Free State of Jones, the Hunger Games), a street drug dealer with a soft spot for the young pre-teen. When young Chiron refuses to tell him his name or where he lives, Juan pulls him under his wings and those of his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures). When he finally earns Chiron’s trust, Juan returns the boy to his single mother, Paula (Naomi Harris, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mandela, Skyfall), who wants nothing to do with drug dealers. We soon discover, however, that Paula is sliding into the dark world of drug addiction and that Chiron is truly fending for himself. But Juan sticks with the young boy and becomes a surrogate parent with Teresa.

Mainstream audiences might find these relationships odd, but the roles that drug dealers, their organizations, and drug trafficking play in these neighborhoods are complex, nuanced, and unconventional. Violence is not necessarily indication of sociopathy. The willingness to use violence to protect territory, enforce contracts, or secure inventory is rational, situational, and often not psychopathic. In fact, much of this violence may be inevitable when misguided government policies raise market prices in the face of persistent demand for an illegal product. The soft-hearted drug dealer is not that much of a stretch if trafficking in contraband is his most practical path to economic success.

The more paradoxical character in the film may be Teresa, Juan’s grounded girlfriend, whose maternal qualities and instincts are endearing. Although her and Juan’s actions seem paradoxical to most of us in mainstream society, such behavior is the dreary norm for many living in the upside down worlds of extreme urban poverty. For details, see the works of economist Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), urban anthropologist Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh (Off the Books: The Underground Economics of the Urban Poor), and my own early contribution to the literature (Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities).

Drug trafficking takes a heavy emotional toll on Juan—and possibly more. Most drug dealers exit the trade when they see that the risk of dealing has become greater than the rewards. But whether or not Juan gets out in time is unclear. He dies before Chiron enters high school, but his death is never explained. In real life as in the film, those who persist in working in the drug trade often suffer major negative consequences even if they never pay the ultimate price.

If drug dealers, foot soldiers, and others in the trade happen to survive, then their years of working in a clandestine underground cash business, where trust is rare, usually will have limited their ability to compete in the mainstream economy. Felony records, poor education, and maladapted social skills make their transition difficult if not impossible. Former gang members are shunted into a lifetime of low-wage work—unable to exploit the higher-level skills they used daily in the drug trade. (A sobering look at the challenges these gangbangers face is evident in the first 20 minutes of More Than A Bullet, the feature-length YouTube documentary about life on the Southside of Chicago. The dialogue of the current and former gang members interviewed, all born and raised in their neighborhood, is subtitled.)

This reality, which Moonlight effectively conveys, is all the more grim for a kid struggling to come to terms with his sexuality as a young gay adolescent. In the film’s second chapter, Chiron is in high school. Now he is tyrannized by Terrel (Patrick Decile), an up and coming gangbanger. Chiron has fallen into his first gay sexual experience with his close (and only) friend Kevin. But Terrel intimidates Kevin into an initiation rite where he is directed to physically attack Chiron. Chiron goes down, but defiantly gets back up. Terrel directs Kevin to keep hitting Chiron until finally the rest of Terrel’s gang descends on him, kicking and punching. The next day, years of bullying combine with the injustice of the incident and ignite a rage that drives Chiron to attack Terrel in school. Chiron, not Terrel, is arrested and sent to prison.

Moonlight’s third chapter opens up with an adult Chiron running his own own gang in Atlanta, using the street name Black. After years in prison, he has gone “hard.” He now emulates Juan, his father figure and mentor. The movie could have ended on this dark note, but Chiron’s story isn’t over. Kevin contacts Chiron, finding his number from Teresa. The effort touches Chiron, reviving a softer part of life, touching his humanity. He travels to Miami, where Kevin works as a “chef,” in reality a short-order cook in a corner diner. Kevin is at peace, despite his imprisonment for an unspecified crime. Although Kevin and Chiron have reconnected, the film’s ending is ambiguous—much like real life for generations of kids growing up in neighborhoods where traditional families are rare, parents are young adults themselves, and the social structure is amorphous and tenuous.

The performances in Moonlight are first rate. Mahershala Ali is convincing as a drug dealer with a heart, and his performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod from the Academy. The other actors are excellent as well. Janelle Monae is a near perfect complement as Juan’s partner Teresa. Naomi Harris does a great turn as Paula, the single mother who becomes increasingly manipulative, narcissistic, and detached from her son as she descends into the well of drug addiction. (Harris apparently performed all her scenes without rehearsal in just three days.) Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland may be under appreciated in their roles as the adult Chiron and Kevin, respectively. Rhodes in particular is exceptional, as he portrays the transformation from a hardened drug dealer into a young man searching for emotional security and then into a man reconnected with his humanity—a performance that is gripping, heartrending, and poignant.

Moonlight is a small-budget movie ($5 million production budget) that addresses sweeping social issues. Even if it wins no Academy Awards, it could easily become a staple of classroom analysis of film development, production, and execution. The sets are simple and real, almost all filmed around the Miami area in run-down neighborhoods, apartments, and abandoned buildings. The characters and cast are of manageable size, allowing the story to stay focused on Chiron’s coming of age. It deserves close attention from anyone interested in the craft of filmmaking and the art of bringing the stories of those on the margins of society into the mainstream.

Barry Jenkins has done an impressive job of giving Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story new life and introducing it to a wider audience, making Moonlight a movie for our times.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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