‘Moonlight’ delves into Miami ghetto life

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Playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend is director Barry Jenkins’ remarkable movie “Moonlight.” Although the title may make it seem as if this will be a romantic drama, instead it is a serious, wrenching look at coming of age in Miami’s black ghetto. It has already been rumored as an Oscar pick. The title comes from “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and adapted by the director.

Jenkins structures “Moonlight” around three periods in the life of Chiron, the central character (played first by Alex Hibbert). We first meet Chiron at 10 years old. A runty kid, he is called “Little” and picked on by the others in his Liberty City, Miami, neighborhood. These bullies taunt him, calling him a “faggot.” To escape them, he hides in an abandoned apartment house, where drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, in a tour-de-force performance) rescues him.

Contrary to stereotypes of black drug dealers, though, Juan is a complex character who acts as a surrogate father for Chiron. He and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, the singer, actress, and model) provide a safe haven for the boy in their middle class home. In one haunting sequence, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, holding him as if in a baptism.

A key component of Chiron’s character is his almost complete silence. He so bottles up his feelings he hardly knows what they are. He opens up enough with Juan and Teresa to ask them what a faggot is, and they explain without judgment. Another key moment comes when Chiron learns that Juan sells drugs to his mother.

The director uses different actors for each of the film’s three segments, and each of these very different-looking actors captures Chiron’s development at a different stage. In the second part of “Moonlight,” Chiron has turned 16 and is played by Ashton Sanders. Juan has disappeared, but Teresa still welcomes the boy whenever he needs a place to stay. By now Chiron’s mother has slid into drug addiction. He has one friend, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner in the first segment; Jharrel Jerome in the second; André Holland in the third). For the first time, Chiron explores his sexuality with Kevin. He is still picked on, and in a particularly painful scene, Kevin betrays him. When Chiron finally explodes, serious consequences follow.

In the film’s final segment, Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes), no longer a scrawny kid and now called Black, has become a drug dealer but a man who still bottles up his feelings. A phone call from Kevin inspires Chiron to reunite with the friend he has lost touch with. Now running an eatery, Kevin offers to cook for his old friend, and they reignite the connection they had years ago.

As powerful as these narrative elements are, they alone don’t convey what makes “Moonlight” such a powerful and important film. It articulates what it means to be an African-American man in today’s society, and in doing so shatters the easy, formulaic images found in most movies.

For information and tickets, see mvfilmsociety.com.