Moonlight shines new light on the inner city

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; based on his play
Directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is the best new American film I’ve seen this year.

With the advantages of a white skin, it’s easy to assume certain stereotypes of those on the margins–especially African Americans living in what is now called the inner city. Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins find human truth behind those stereotypes in this remarkable film.

This is Jenkins’ first feature film since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. He’s made a huge improvement over that interesting yet flawed first try.

McCraney sets the story in three distinct chapters, each one focusing on a different time in the protagonist’s life. Jenkins uses three different actors to play the main character. In the first section, Little, Alex R. Hibbert plays him as a child, caught between his troubled, single mother and the drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father. Ashton Sanders plays him as a teenager, and a target for bullies, in Chiron. Trevante Rhodes, muscle-bound and dripping with gold, plays the adult. A drug dealer by trade, he looks like the stereotypical scary thug. But he’s really a shy, confused, lonely, gay man deep inside the closet.

Only Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s mother, appears in all three sections.

Mahershala Ali (one of the most interesting actors around today; you’ll probably recognize him from Game of Thrones) carries the first section as the head of a drug-dealing operation. That defines him clearly as a villain by normal Hollywood standards. But to the young Chiron, he’s a gentle, kind man who recognizes that this child needs more parenting than his mother can give. Among other things, he takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim.

In one scene, Chiron asks about the word faggot. His surrogate father tells him that it’s word people use to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the confused child that if he turns out to be gay, that’s fine.

Only one brief line suggests a violent side to the drug kingpin’s line of work. But even there, it’s about self-defense.

The bullying Chiron suffers in the first two sections make a prologue for what he is in the third. At first glance, he’s the super-macho gangsta that no one will mess with. But on the inside, he’s still the scared and lonely little boy.

Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell avoid the musical clichés of “in the ‘hood” movies. Rap pops up only briefly in the third act. Most of the music is rich and symphonic, with some recognizable classical pieces.

This isn’t a story of tough dudes in the ghetto. It’s the story of a confused young man trying to make his way in a scary world.