Writer and director Barry Jenkins has hit on something important that we haven’t been noticing. Otherwise his Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” is, in several ways, one of the kinds of movies that have routinely been nominated for the award the last few years.
“Crash” was a surprisingly provincial movie about race and poverty in America’s coastal big cities. “Precious” was about an abusive family of poor people in New York. “Django” and “12 Years a Slave” were, in completely different ways, about cooperation between members of different races in very racist societal surroundings.
“Boyhood” was a documentary about growing up, a subject that is central to “Moonlight.” “Whiplash” was about the relationship between a young man and his mentor. The movies are also alike in that most of them weren’t seen widely. I had never met anyone who claimed to have seen “Moonlight” before it opened here, three or four months after its release.
The Florida-set film also makes use of some techniques moviegoers have gotten used to seeing—moving cameras, stories told in sections of action separated from each other by time, documentary “feel,” and indifferent sound recording.
But what Jenkins has given his movie is an observation about the poor which may not be new, but was risky to make in a motion picture: it may be that the poor don’t talk as much as do other Americans.
The central figure in “Moonlight,” referred to as “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black” in the three sections of the film, almost never speaks. His long-time friend Kevin, himself played by three different actors of different ages, remarks on this late in the movie. He’s right. Chiron rarely says more than eight words in a scene.
And he doesn’t seem to be reached by words. There are at least four scenes when his mother, a school administrator, or a teacher rattle away while we look through Chiron’s eyes and note that the picture blurs and the voice of the speaker becomes murky and indistinct.
Probably the character got the name of the centaur because both of them are taught something about life by a father figure. Apollo is actually the centaur’s dad. The boy doesn’t know who his real father is, but he is casually adopted by an illegal drug dealer named Juan, played with great care by journeyman actor Mahershala Ali.
We learn most of what we will about Chiron during his brief moments with Kevin and Juan. The older man comes to help the boy after he has hid himself in a drug shooters “gallery” to get away from bullies (another Hollywood preoccupation). Juan feeds Chiron, gives him someplace clean to sleep, introduces him to his own sympathetic girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, who was also one of the stars of “Hidden Figures”), teaches him to swim, and tells him the story that is set as if it were the decoder metaphor for the picture.
A woman once told Juan that under the moonlight, everyone looks blue. Not that this will help most moviegoers interpret the signifi- cance of the film’s story.
The otherwise friendless Chiron has a life-changing experience with Kevin after Juan’s disappearance from the movie. Bullies force Kevin to hit his slight pal. When Chiron is down, the thugs kick him. The next day our hero comes to school a changed fellow. He knocks the bully ringleader over the head with a school chair and begins his life as a criminal and as someone who can protect himself.
Once the two of them are both our of jail and settled— Chiron as an imitation of Juan and Kevin as a cook in Georgia—they meet again. But as “Moonlight” is a “character first” movie, don’t expect too much in the way of problem resolution in that last meeting.
Nevertheless, the point about the lingual poverty of the economically poor is a very interesting one. Because “Moonlight” gives us that idea to play around with, it will stay with us for a bit after the credits roll.