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“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”
– CS Lewis, Mere Christianity
*I saw Moonlight on Saturday – 24 December 2016.
The thing about the theory of “nature vs. nurture” that makes it so fascinating is the idea that one could easily predict the course a human life will take – be it their own or someone else’s – based on nothing more than a few clues observed during birth. What makes the theory equally frustrating is when one looks back on their life in an attempt to find out what made them what they are, only to find very few definitive answers.
The sum of what makes a person who and what they are is a question that’s baffled philosophers since humanity gained self-awareness. At worst, the idea has been used by those wishing to more easily enforce their will on others. At best, it allows one to reminisce on happy accidents that lead to personal success.
We are who we are, and that’s not attributable to any one thing. Still, the journey each person takes to discover who and what they are is just one of the things that continues to make the human experience so fascinating.
We follow our protagonist at three different points in his life.
At the first, he’s a boy nicknamed “Little” living in Miami’s all-Black Liberty Square housing projects. His mother (Naomie Harris) is an addict, his best friend is also one of his many bullies, and the only person to show him genuine kindness is his mother’s dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali).
We next meet the same boy in high school, now going by his given name, “Chiron”. With his mother’s addiction having worsened, he frequently stays with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). His best friend is still Kevin, who is no longer his bully. One night on the beach, the two comfort each other in a way that will have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives.
We conclude with the now fully-grown “Black” as a dealer in Atlanta. He hasn’t been back to see his mother in a long time, but is living as well as a criminal can. As someone who considers himself always ready for the unexpected, the one thing he isn’t ready for is a sudden late-night phone call from Kevin.
If I have one caveat with this film – and I mean only one – it would have to be the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I found the ending to be an abrupt stop that quickly jumped to a resolution that, I believe, could have come more organically had it been more room to “breathe”. That may have pushed this 110-min. film to a full two hours, but I think it would have been worth it.
But, as I said, that is my only caveat with this film. Moonlight is the sort of Terence Malick would make if he had any interest in Black people. It’s an intimate and compelling look at sexuality and the definitions of masculinity in the Black American inner-city. Like the best slice-of-life dramas, it doesn’t make moral judgments about its characters, preferring to take an over-the-shoulder view of events as they unfold beyond our control. Given how a running theme of the film is the greater significance of a soft touch, it’s to the credit of screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins that he applies such an approach to his film.
Of the film’s great performances, the one I’d like to highlight is that of Naomie Harris as Little/Chiron/Black’s crack-addicted mother Paula. Portraying addiction on screen or stage can often be a trap for an actor: no matter what the vice, the actor will often feel their job isn’t done unless they chew every inch of scenery to indicate drug use. Harris, mercifully, takes a more subdued and realistic approach. She isn’t showcasing for a 30-sec. PSA, she’s living the life of a woman caught in the grip of a substance she can’t avoid. If Harris isn’t given an Oscar nomination for her performance, it’s just stand as further proof that the Academy doesn’t get it.
Her fellow cast members are equally on top of their game, with Monáe proving to be a singer who can genuinely act (something Beyoncé still hasn’t learned to do) and Ali adding another great performance to his repertoire. And of course no write up of this film would be complete without mentioning the three actors who embody the central character: Alex Hibbert (“Little”), Ashton Sanders (“Chiron”), and Trevante Rhodes (“Black”). Rhodes – with his muscular frame and ability to seamlessly move from ferocity to vulnerability – would have made a far better Luke Cage than Mike Colter. Given the MCU has already done high-profile casting changes (The Hulk, Rhodey), I’d personally nominate Rhodes to take over the role of Cage from the charisma-free Colter, but that’s just me.
Moonlight is a touching look at how forces in and out of our control mold us into the people are. The affect of some incidents are easier to identify than others, but all leave their mark. The choices you consciously make are just as important as those made for you, because in the end, there’s no taking them back.
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