Over the holidays I finally saw the much talked about film "Moonlight." I was moved to see so much of my early life story in the protagonist, Chiron's.
The film is an elegy in three parts based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film's three parts - Chiron...Little...Black - tell the story of a shy child named Chiron (Alex Hibbert), dubbed "Little" for his meek personality and size. Lacking stability and support from his anxious and abusive mother, Chiron finds a mentor in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer who shelters him after he is chased by bullies. Chiron and Juan continue spending more time together, and in a powerful scene Juan teaches Chiron how to swim while advising him to also make his own path in life.
In many ways Juan and his girlfriend Theresa were like my parents, not in what they did to live, but rather in how they cared for a child who was "different" - in need of love, and attention and most importantly, acceptance. Growing up as a gay youth in the early 1970s I had no one "like me" to emulate and few places where I could truly feel safe. Home was that place for me.
Teenaged Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is frequently bullied, harassed and openly threatened until the bullying culminates in a violent school yard episode followed by a personal vindication by Chiron in a classroom.
As I watched the classroom scene I could not help but recall my own personal "classroom" moment, which took place on a street in my Cleveland neighborhood. I had finally had enough of my neighborhood bully, and fought back - like Muhammad Ali in a proverbial rumble in an urban jungle - and the bullying stopped. Instead of going to "juvie" as happens to Chiron in the film, I was sent to Prep school. While Chiron spent his time in juvenile detention exercising to make his body stronger, I exercised to make my mind and intellect stronger. Fortunately for me, unlike Chiron I was always tracked as "bright" and as having "potential." Imagine a world where we believed in the potential of all our children.
After his experience in juvie, Chiron emerges as a drug dealer living outside Atlanta, going by the name "Black". He now leads a similar life to the one Juan led, living in a large house and even driving the same car that Juan drove. Chiron's role model for what his future could be was a benevolent drug dealer, while my life had different examples that lead me to a different path and options for my future.
Another important part of the film was the refreshing absence of whiteness as being central to the life of its characters. It brought to mind Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's discussion of the "white gaze." In a scene near the end of the film when Chiron returns to Miami, whiteness is merely a blur, as it rushes quickly by.
The film was raw, complex and multi-layered, and the honest and gentle final scene moved me to tears.
As a social worker I could not help but feel reinforced in what I've known for years: the importance of a caring adult(s) in the lives of children.
I'm glad I made the time to see the film...and to dance in its moonlight.