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Rare Film to Embrace Black Experience

A review of the movie 'Moonlight'

Darleen Ortega | 11/15/2016, 4:52 p.m.
"Moonlight" is the kind of art that makes you ache what you have been missing.
“Moonlight,” is new movie portraying African-Americans as beautifully complex and not reduced to the flimsy stereotypes so often presented on-screen.

"Moonlight" is the kind of art that makes you ache what you have been missing. It is the kind of film that builds hunger for more than we have been forced to settle for, only because of the narrow band of stories that make it to screens in our neighborhoods.

A black boy who is sensitive. Who hides from bullies. Who barely speaks. A black man who is both a drug dealer and a gentle mentor and father figure to the sensitive boy, a drug dealer with a conscience. A boy who hardly recognizes why he is "other," who scarcely can allow himself to recognize what others already see. Who really has no one to protect him from bullies, least of all his teachers. And whose only visible out is violence. The languorous slow build of longing between two black men.

Stories like these are no more than hinted at in the films we see. Black men and boys rarely have the opportunity to enact roles beyond pimp, drug dealer, or violent criminal, and then only the two-dimensional kind. Perhaps they might play cops, though more likely as a sidekick to a white police officer who is the main character.

What a pleasure, then, to sink into this story, which takes its time building the pieces of a young man's identity. What a treat to have the opportunity to linger long enough to notice how sorrow and fear manifest in a school-age boy, what kindness looks like from a complicated man who is both caring and dangerous, the struggle of a mother caught in the throes of addiction and the specific signs that her life is unraveling.

This story takes its time, and feels lived in. It is the work of two men who grew up in the same housing project in Miami -- Tarell McCraney, whose play inspired this work, and Barry Jenkins, who also directed the film. These men know some things, and they have the skill to show what they know in a way that feels truer and more lived in than most films, and certainly films about people of color. All the characters here are complicated, and the film keeps them that way.

Their protagonist is played by three different actors who don't look much alike but who manage to convey a common thread. As a youngster, he is known as Little, a slight boy whose life appears to consist of running and hiding from bullies and riding the waves of his mother's addiction. His trauma is conveyed with subtlety and specificity that we rarely see. It feels so important to understand that help comes to this boy in the form of Juan, the man who controls the drug trade that has sucked in his mother. Life is complicated that way. People are too.

In his adolescence, we know the boy as Chiron. Skinny and a perpetual outcast, Chiron has acquired some coping skills, but still is doing a lot of hiding. In this episode (indeed, in all three), he has pivotal encounters with a peer, Kevin. The interactions here are alternately tender and traumatic. We are made to feel the inadequacy of all the adults in Chiron's world, and the walls that confine him and limit his options could not be more confining.

In adulthood, Chiron becomes Black. He has bulked up and adopted the model of manhood set for him by Juan. Because this film has taken its time with its main characters, we are more likely to recognize that, if we encountered Black, we would not imagine that he has Little and Chiron inside him. He has chosen a persona, and the choice is both reasonable and mysterious. When Kevin asks him, "Who is you, man?" the question reverberates. Who is he? Can we know? Does he?

I love that this film keeps people complex. I love that it keeps black men complex. Though it takes its time and though Little/Chiron/Black says little -- and though I saw it when I was stressed and tired -- I was riveted. It made me want to know people in a different way. And that's the mark of a beautiful, humanist film.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.