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Moonlight sheds some light

Powerful coming-of-age story examines a crisis of masculinity among African-American men – and shines a light on policies that lay waste to US communities

17 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Certificate 15

 is a beautiful, surprising film that takes us through three acts showing three ages of one person as he grows up in arduous circumstances in a dilapidated corner of Miami.

We first meet Chiron (played in turn by Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevant Rhodes) as a youngster. He is being chased by bullies through a litter-strewn plot, and escapes by clambering into an abandoned housing block. He cowers in a dark corner, scattered with drug detritus – until there is rapping on the door. Jean (Mahershala Ali) finds this shy boy and tries to help him.

Now if this were to trundle along well-worn tracks Jean would be a flawless guardian angel. He would help Chiron come to terms with his life and see light at the end of a troubled childhood.

But no: director Jenkins understands the frailties of human nature, and how a good person can act in seemingly bad ways due to the forces of the circumstances they are in.

Jean is a drug dealer, but also respected in his community. His bling brings him status. That he is selling the crack that makes Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) neglect her son, and therefore passes the responsibility on to him, is a nuance Jenkins ably tackles.

We are then taken through his school years, where he tries to become invisible to avoid bullies, to an adulthood where his loneliness leads him into a criminal life.

As well as a personal story about coming of age, it touches on a crisis within a community’s concepts of masculinity. Gay love in African American men’s lives does not get much airplay outside of films set in New York and this is at the story’s core.

A further point rises. Jenkins asks what has become of the victims of the 1980s inner-city crack cocaine epidemic? The political reasons behind it have become more obvious as historians consider the period.

New information about the relationship between drug importation, the US government, the CIA, the Contras, a policy of destabilising left-wing central American governments as well as laying waste to communities seen as expendable has appeared.

We have seen this in films such as Kill The Messenger, about reporter Gary Webb who uncovered evidence pointing to this, in recent times.

But we have not had a light shone on the American victims, and Moonlight goes some way to setting this right.


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