Greetings again from the darkness. It’s uncertain whether writer/director Barry Jenkins has developed the story from Tarell McCraney in order to highlight stereotypes, explain stereotypes, or both. The interpretation is up to the viewer, but what’s clear is that the film is one of the most sensitive portraits we’ve seen of growing up young, black, and sexually confused, while being mostly neglected by a drug-addicted mother.
Told in standard triptych structure, the film chronicles 3 stages in the life of a young male, with the chapters titled Little – Chiron – Black, for the names he is known by at each stage. As a 9 year old boy, “Little” (a nickname due to his small stature) is a wide-eyed near-mute who gets bullied and called names by the bigger boys. It’s at this stage where he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers a “safe place” to sleep and eat, with the bonus of swimming lessons accentuated by life lessons from Juan and his understanding girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). It’s a poignant and painful moment when Little connects the dots between his mother (Naomie Harris) and Juan.
As a high school adolescent, Chiron is now a nervous, totally-withdrawn kid who simply doesn’t fit in – and doesn’t understand why. His high-crime Miami neighborhood is even more dangerous for him now as the schoolyard bullying is often accompanied by violent behavior. His surrogate father figure Juan is no longer in the picture, but Teresa is still there for him – always at the ready with a meal, clean sheets, and a spoonful of wisdom.
In the final chapter, we catch up with a hardened “Black” (another nickname) 10 years after high school followed by a stint in prison. He has moved from his Miami roots, and it’s at this stage where we fully understand the influence of a role model on a boy who has few. When he reconnects with childhood buddy Kevin, we see the shredded remnants of young “Little” still present in the older, experienced “Black”. This circle of life is understandable, while at the same time being nearly unbearable.
In addition to Mr. Ali and Ms. Monea (both who are excellent in the upcoming Hidden Figures), and the standout work of Ms. Harris, the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin through the years are fascinating to watch. Alex Hibbert perfectly captures the confused “Little”. Ashton Sanders plays the awkward, dreading-each-day Chiron; and Trevante Rhodes (former University of Texas athlete) plays the adult “Black” with a quiet uneasiness that resonates on screen. The 3 Kevin actors are Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland (a standout as the adult Kevin).
Beautifully filmed in all three segments by cinematographer James Laxton, the film reiterates the importance of role models, especially in the life of those whose path seems pre-ordained by circumstance. The harsh realities of drug addiction, absentee parents, schoolyard bullying, and the almost inevitable stint behind bars are contrasted with a plate of fries, the chef’s special from an old friend, and the soothing effects of sand and sea. Encouraging our kids to be true to themselves is a lesson that can fall on deaf ears when surviving the moment is first and foremost. This incredibly sensitive film is likely either a necessary reminder or an eye-opening education … depending on your own situation.
watch the trailer: