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In the middle of the abyss, ‘Moonlight’ shines bright

Alex Hibbert in a scene from 'Moonlight.' (David Bornfriend/A24)

Alex Hibbert in a scene from ‘Moonlight.’ (David Bornfriend/A24)

“Who is you, Chiron?” asks his distanced friend and brief lover.

The answer, according to “Moonlight,” is one that is in constant flux. Chiron’s sense of self and his relation to others – his absent father and trapped mother, his surrogate parents, his employee and surrogate son, his tormentors and lone friend – always pivots in relation to his age, location, emotions and the way he fills his space. His perspective constantly shifts based on where he stands, the area he occupies and the body he inhabits. And the viewer moves with him.

“Moonlight,” a film that even the most excessive hyperbole still seems to undersell, examines these intersections of identity – be it race, masculinity, queerness or overall sense of self – and how they form a man who contains multitudes.

The film tracks Chiron, a gay Black man (though he only really understands the former about himself midway through), across three periods of his life. In a sense, “Moonlight” features three protagonists rather than one – all who occupy the same body at different stages.

As a boy, we see “Little” (a diminutive moniker given by the boys who harass him daily) navigate a world that punishes him for being different. He can’t place why yet, though it reflects in his loner status and his inability to connect with others.

With a missing father and a guilt-ridden, crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) who loves her son but does not know how to express it, Little finds solace in the embrace of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe, who may or may not be of this earth).

The pair provide a safe haven for Little from the terrors of the outside world. As Juan holds Little beneath the Floridian waves, he becomes baptized anew, and with the guidance and validation of Juan and Teresa, Chiron can claim his birth name with pride even if he cannot fully cleanse himself of past baggage.

Chiron shares his name with the most famous centaur from Greek mythology, and it fits him well. The mythical Chiron, a soulful philosopher and stargazer, has little in common with the bravura and toxic masculinity that defines his fellow centaurs. Unable to fit in amongst their kinsman because of their interests and rejected by hegemonic society as a whole for their appearance, both Chirons must perpetually exist on the fringes of their communities.

The film’s adolescent Chiron is perpetually shunned by peers disgusted with his perceived abnormality, and they lash out when he has the audacity to stand up to them. There is no better way to destroy someone than to have the person they love to do the work for you, and Chiron learns this the hard way when he displays vulnerability to someone he should not have trusted.

The adult Chiron, now a drug dealer who goes by “Black,” has at least attempted to shed his former self, yet the past still finds a way to creep up on him.

Three different actors – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in that order – play this central figure, and feel at once distinct and linked together by a singular essence. None of them say more than one or two sentences at a time, yet each actor carries the weight of their previous incarnation, and we see this burden and blessing in the eyes of Little, Chiron and Black as they stare out into the sea.

In just his second feature, director Barry Jenkins demonstrates with near-perfection his ability to harmonize the thematic, the technical and the emotional. Actors are bathed in blue, yellow and purple hues reflected from the ocean, sun, streetlights, stars and moon, and the way these colors gleam on their faces highlights every crevice, wrinkle, baggy eye circle and laugh line.

Though there are obvious differences in subject matter, “Moonlight” echoes my beloved “Carol” in the way it depicts the closeted experience as a constant anchor that exists to drag you down into an abyss untouched by the watchful moon’s glow.

While I cannot speak with authority to the way Chiron’s race relates to his sexuality, there are episodes in Chiron’s schoolyard and home life experience that feel achingly familiar. Imagine lying to the world as survival tactic – where 10-inch boots stomp on your neck and every microaggression is an icepick jabbed into your skin. And the moment you try to lift the boot or bat away the icepicks, they only press down harder.

Many critics (mostly white, mostly straight, let’s be honest) have referred to “Moonlight” as a definitive depiction of the queer Black male experience, as if they would ever refer to “Boyhood” as an essential portrayal of the straight white male experience. Jenkin’s film is really one richly-layered narrative among many, and its raw passion and magnificent craftsmanship open the door to many more stories both intrinsically similar and fundamentally different.

“Moonlight” uses Blackness, masculinity and queerness as a means to explore the multi-faceted experience of the neglected and the othered, all told through the eyes of a child with three names who doubtless will adopt more as he grows and discard the ones he no longer needs.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

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