Written by: Barry Jenkins, based on “In Midnight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
At around age nine, growing up in Miami in the 1980s, Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone, not like the mythological centaur) has already learned to take care of himself. His mother (Naomie Harris) is sinking into the quagmire of addiction, and he is relentlessly tormented by bullies, who have already labeled him a “faggot.” He’s too quiet, too sensitive, too gentle — and he’s on the fringes of exploring the fact that he’s gay. In his struggle for self-preservation, Chiron camouflages himself in silence.
He crosses paths with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, who becomes a father figure to the boy, taking him into his home, feeding him, teaching him about trust, and helping him create some happy childhood memories.
Young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) grows into a teenager (Ashton Sanders), still coping with his mother’s addiction and a home that isn’t a reliable sanctuary. He’s also coming to terms with his own sexuality and trying to figure out his feelings for his friend Kevin. Chiron looks a bit shell-shocked, out of place in his world, and not quite at home in his own skin. And when he finally does let down his guard, it leads him down a disastrous path.
Then we meet the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), seemingly tougher — even though we soon realize this toughness is a brittle shell — on the wrong side of the law, and sporting gold teeth to boot. The course of his life has been determined largely by events in his adolescence, linked to his complicated relationship with Kevin. And his life is a reflection of the world he grew up in. He is still silent and guarded, and he seems to have no close human connections.
Visiting his mother, now in rehab in Atlanta, forces him to confront his tangled mass of feelings for her — anger, hurt, dislike, and love. He is challenged to let down his guard and explore the possibility of forgiveness. Then a phone call from someone from his past presents the same challenge all over again.
Most of this film takes place in Miami, and the setting — both bleak and beautiful — is incredibly vibrant. And the acting is phenomenal. Mahershala Ali has been lavished with well-deserved acclaim for his supporting role. But it was the three actors who portrayed Chiron who mesmerized me. In all his incarnations, he is quiet, reticent, and watchful yet — even without much dialogue (and despite my coming from a background of relative privilege) — I almost felt I knew what it was like to be in his skin. His facial expressions, his gaze, and the way he holds himself — all of it speaks volumes. The three actors who portrayed Kevin are also wonderful, using their limited screen time to create another complex, flawed, vulnerable character.
While their roles are secondary, the women in the film are equally memorable. I was particularly drawn to Naomie Harris. Her character, Paula, is damaged, self-absorbed, and full of simmering rage. She is undoubtedly a terrible mother, but right from the beginning, I felt her love for her son, and I empathized with her. As a mom, I found the scene where — in recovery and psychologically battered — she expresses her love, guilt, and deep regret one of the most devastating scenes in the movie.
This is a lovely film, beautifully shot, with a gorgeous soundtrack, and with phenomenal character development. In many ways it’s a movie about the struggle for identity. This is highlighted by the names Chiron (aka “Little” or “Black”) adopts and sheds in each of his three incarnations. What does it mean to be a Black man in our culture? How does one cope with being expected to be tough — when being too tough will land you in prison (or worse)? To what degree do our experiences define us? What does it mean to be human? To make a life?
Finally, I feel conflicted about the end of the film. The inconclusive, somewhat bittersweet ending just fits somehow. Yet I was disappointed when the credits rolled. I wasn’t ready to part company with Chiron and Kevin, and it seemed that having been through this journey with them, damn it, I was entitled to see them get a happy ending.
Yet the ending hits the right note. It’s a scene in which love, empathy, and vulnerability trump fear and pain, echoing some of the great moments we’ve seen throughout the film. There probably isn’t an answer to the question “What does it mean to be human?” — but this may be as close as it gets.