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Film Review


Few American films tackle the real black experience in America. Being a black child in this country is usually problematic, to say the least. More than anything, poverty and broken families haunt the children. The US has the highest percentage of families living below the poverty line of any first-world country. Twenty percent of all American kids are poor, and the most recent figures (2013) for black children far worse: more than half again higher. Yet we are one of the wealthiest nations per capita. How can it be that we allow so many of our children to go hungry? There is little doubt that this pervasive poverty has terrible consequences, including broken families, illness and shortened lifespans, disrupted education, crime and incarceration, among other pathologies Too often, the poor are accused of being lazy or lacking discipline, which becomes an excuse to indirectly punish them further in ways that hurt both them and their children. But as disgraceful as it is, the situation persists, not for lack of resources, but for the lack of national will. A few films have tried to illustrate this; none better than Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Both Jenkins and McCraney both grew up in Miami area housing projects; both with addicted mothers. Both lived the life but both escaped. McCraney writes about 10 year old Chiron, a black youngster in Miami whose mother is addicted to crack. His father has long since disappeared. Because Chiron is small for his age and shy, he is bullied by other boys in his school. Moonlight opens with a tough looking black drug dealer, Juan, checking in on one of his dealers. He sees a band of kids running by. But the kids are chasing Chiron, who finds refuge in a boarded up building. Juan rescues him and takes him to the large suburban house he shares with his girl friend Theresa. Juan and Theresa's house becomes a kind of sanctuary for Chiron. Right from the start, Moonlight abounds in memorable scenes. Chiron, confused, asks Juan, "Does my mother take drugs?" and "Do you sell drugs". Chiron's questions - and Juan's reaction - frame one of the most powerful scenes of many in this film. Chiron rarely speaks, but when he does, his few words cut to the quick. Even his friend asks: "Who is you?" In another unforgettable scene, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim in the ocean. Chiron is afraid but Juan encourages him, holding him up as he strokes. The camera bobs along alongside in a scene that is both powerful and poignant. Juan has become the father that Chiron never knew. This is just the beginning of chapter one, titled "Little", Chiron's nickname because of his size.

Moonlight tells Chiron's life story in three chapters. In each, he is played by a different actor, as is his school friend Kevin, with whom he reconnects in the third chapter. Even though the teenage Chiron doesn't look anything like the adult Chiron, the transition is seamless. Chiron continues to struggle and search for his identity. Juan says, "At some point you've got to decide what you want to be". Each chapter could easily be expanded to a stand-alone film but Jenkins has brilliantly distilled the essence of Chiron's earlier life stages. Jenkins shows us the dilemma of black masculinity and vulnerability, a conflict that is very hard for any middle class white person to understand. In Greek mythology, Chiron, the centaur was a famous teacher and helped mankind in many ways. The name is so uncommon that it seems no coincidence that McCraney chose it, perhaps because the mythological Chiron, unlike his fellow centaurs, loved man.

Moonlight is an extraordinary film in so many ways. It is as close to Italian neorealism as you will see in an American film. The acting, even in the minor roles, is as good as it gets. Naomie Harris, playing Chiron's mother, is particularly brilliant. The three actors playing Chiron at his various ages are remarkable. Each should share an Oscar for best actor. This is a universe of black characters, and the only white people to appear in the film are police officers and a few customers in a diner. The cinematography is excellent, with bright saturated outdoor scenes and dark nights and interiors. Handheld camerawork heightens the realism of certain scenes. The music is wonderful, from rap to R&B, and from opera to folk songs. In a totally wonderful scene late in the film, Chiron is seen speeding down the interstate to an enchanting and familiar Mexican folk song, Cucurrucucu paloma. Jenkins has given us a masterpiece whose characters will stay with us forever. Moonlight is powerful yet understated, tender, sad, sensitive, carefully observed, revelatory and lyric. It is the American film of the year. Tears will be shed but this is not a downer film. Definitely to be seen on the big screen. Running time: 110 minutes. Now at the Embarcadero and the Kabuki, and likely to play more widely in a few weeks.

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