New movie lands in Atlanta as first gay-male-oriented serious Oscar contender in years with its exploration of identity discovery against the odds.
Few films released this year feel quite as essential to this particular moment in history as Moonlight. It’s a gorgeously shot, emotionally wrought exploration of its central character, Chiron, as he grows up in Miami as a black man who doesn’t fit in with those around him, both because of his general demeanor and his specific romantic and sexual interest in men.
Since its premiere at Telluride earlier this year, Moonlight has received a tremendous from critics and general audiences alike.
The story follows Chiron across three periods of his life: the latter days of his childhood, where he’s looked after by a drug dealer who becomes a father figure; years later in high school, where his introverted nature and damaging home life make him more of a target from bullies; and in his mid-20s, where life has pushed him into a lonely existence until he receives an unexpected phone call. The film looks at the ways different forms of identity clash and merge, and how societal pressures can impact a person.
For actor Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as an adult, taking on the role meant connecting to the root of who the character became by the time he’s in his 20s – someone who’s built a tough exterior to try and protect a fragile soul.
“It was really understanding that this person was someone who’s incredibly tormented, someone who had a lot of self-hate because he didn’t understand who he was,” Rhodes says. “So it was about inhabiting this skin and walking around L.A. feeling like I had this disdain for myself, or this disdain for everyone else, having this secret that I had to hide from everyone. I felt like if I were to connect with someone, they would see the secret, they would see the insecurities, they would see the little boy who just wants to dance around and they would judge me for it.”
Throughout Moonlight, a large root of Chiron’s insecurities come from his relationship with his mother, Paula, who has a drug problem that escalates over the course of the film. For Naomie Harris, who plays Paula, taking on the character was a challenge – in part because it went against the type of roles she wanted for herself.
“I desperately wanted to do [the film], but … I had a dilemma because here was this amazing script and amazing filmmaker, but I’ve always said that I would draw the line at playing a crack addict,” Harris says.
“I really wanted to make my choices as an actor based on portraying positive images of women in general, and black women in particular, and I didn’t think a crack addict was one of them,” she continues. “So it took a conversation with Barry basically convincing me, asking me to play his mom, before I said yes.”
With audiences now seeing the final product, though, both Rhodes and Harris are quick to note just how strongly audiences are responding to Moonlight. During the film’s premiere at Telluride, there was a standing ovation – plus a second standing ovation outside of the theater as the film’s talent walked out. Then came the one-on-one interactions.
“People started coming up to us and sharing their experiences with the movie,” Harris says. “A 70-year-old white guy ended up crying in the arms of Barry, a black girl came up to me and was telling me about her experience. She ended up bursting into tears, and was sobbing in my arms. I’ve never been a part of a movie that moves people in this way, and I’ve been working since I was nine years old, which is 31 years doing this.”
Rhodes’ first experience with someone impacted by the film didn’t even involve the full film itself – just the release of Moonlight’s first trailer.
“A two-minute trailer. I’ll never forget, it was literally an hour later, and I was at the gym,” he remembers. “This guy comes up to me. He’s shaking, his eyes are red, and he’s tearing up, and he tells me that this is his story, and he appreciates us for telling this story so much. And that just hit my heart, because from a two-minute trailer, an hour ago, you were affected.”
For anybody debating watching the film, Rhodes has a few words of advice.
“If you have any hesitance towards going to see this, then you really need to see it more than anybody,” he suggests. “If you have a friend that’s hesitant, grab them, put them in a headlock, pay for their ticket if you need to, but get them to see this movie, because this is something that literally everyone needs to see, everyone needs to understand.”
Moonlight opens Friday, Oct. 28, at AMC Phipps Plaza, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema and Regal Atlantic Station.
Originally published in David Atlanta.