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'Moonlight': Illuminating
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
05:22PM / Thursday, December 01, 2016
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'Moonlight' tracks the passage of time and experience of a young, bullied African-American boy who grows up on the mean streets of Miami.

The DNA of everything that is wrong, sad and perplexing about race relations in the U.S. is poetically discerned and illuminated in filmmaker Barry Jenkins' Oscar-worthy "Moonlight." Jenkins ingeniously utilizes the low-budget, art house look of his sociologically profound film about a young black man's journey in ghettoized America to personalize the tale without the least bit of affectation. It is storytelling in our best, lyrical tradition, ripping open barely sealed wounds in its engrossing proof that there's nothing like the real truth to get your attention.

In the slums of Miami, in an indeterminate near-past that implies the infinite stagnancy of such hopelessly forgotten locales, preadolescent Little hides from his bigger contemporaries. He's been tormented since his first steps on the cruel roads that he must traverse in order to get to school. Every day brings the same horror: pain inflicted by bullies for their own self-aggrandizement. He is marvelously portrayed by Alex Hibbert, who skillfully uses mime to underscore his fear of talking, lest he say something that brings him yet more undeserved, inexplicable punishment.

It is utterly horrible to contemplate a childhood so deprived of the joys, dreams and life-affirming adventures that most American children pretty much take for granted. Thus we are somewhat heartened when Juan, the local pusher man and not the kind of fellow you want to mess with, takes Little under his wing. Sympathetically played by Mahershala Ali, he is a study in ambiguity, the definitive portrait in hypocrisy, the uneasy result of Darwinian necessity at odds with humanity's attempt to free itself from the rule of the jungle.

One need not be a psychologist to sense that there's a pattern at work here, one almost as indelibly powerful as the forces of nature it is struggling to temper. Though it's hard to imagine, this hulking presence, who takes Little to luncheonettes, teaches him to swim in the nearby ocean he's hardly ever seen, and expounds about self-actualization in the face of seemingly impossible odds, was perhaps once a bit like Little. In any case, for now at least, Juan and his pretty girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), provide a modicum of sanctuary for the kid.

You see, there's not much help at home. There's no talk at all of a dad, and Paula, his mom, sensationally acted by Naomie Harris is, to put it bluntly, a crack whore, and all that that entails. That's Scene 1 of the script written by Barry Jenkins, inspired by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney's "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." A fade out and fade in, stylishly managed to intone the tragedy of ill-fate and destiny at work, opens Scene 2 with the 16-year-old protagonist, now called by his real name, Chiron, being terrorized by the high school toughs.

Dramatically outlining the forces that nurture this evil, Jenkins puts forth a clinically astute treatise on bullying, remarkably wrapped in his photo-realistic fiction to mesmerizing effect. Unless you are perversely sympathetic to what causes this national shame of denigration to each new generation, you are mortified by the villainy. We anguish. What to do, what to do? What about all the real Chirons in every city, town and hollow, living in constant fear, robbed of their childhood, bereft of horizons or great expectations, with hardly a soul to advocate for them?

Scene 3 brings a surprise. Introduced to the adult Chiron, we find out what might happen when this terrible, repetitive pattern goes unchecked. I can't tell you who and what he is now — only that you'll rub your eyes in disbelief for a second, uncertain as to whether or not you're witnessing a flashback. Now referred to as Black, consummately played by Trevante Rhodes, this third permutation of a life shaped by the forces of poverty, prejudice and ignorance picks up on a theme alluded to earlier in the story.

It is a subtlety among the ferocity, a nod to the human heart and that universal longing oft referred to as love. Framed in this context, it is at once frightening and romantic, yet all the same a positive paean to the commonality of our species. But you knew it was there all the time, shamefully hidden away amidst the Sturm und Drang of those mean streets, hinted at but not daring to be expressed for fear it would evoke a sentimentality that might mark you weak and "soft." Jenkins pulls this precious element from the miasma as if to prove the hope it holds.

Spoken for the most part in African-American vernacular English, which effectively stresses the more than tacit racial segregation that forms our gerrymandered land of good and plenty, as well as the evil swept under the carpet, Little/Chiron/Black's story is a microcosm of a greater dynamic. Scary when you consider that recent election results suggest a renewed apathy to these uniquely American problems, "Moonlight "shines a harsh light on the fact that 151 years after the Civil War's conclusion, we've still barely scratched the surface of true and noble Reconstruction.

"Moonlight," rated R, is an A24 release directed by Barry Jenkins and stars Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Running time: 111 minutes

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