The life of a young African-American man from childhood to adulthood growing up in seriously rough environs, told in three chapters. As a child Chiron AKA ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert) has to deal with a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and finds a slightly more stable male parental figure in local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is an affable, strong male role model in some respects, but the fact that he’s providing the very reason for Little’s mother’s problems is difficult to reconcile for both the boy and the audience. In his teenage years, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) deals with bullying and emerging sexual identity questions. Finally in the third chapter the now grownup Chiron goes by the name ‘Black’ (now played by Trevante Rhodes), wrestles with his troubled and confusing past whilst also tenuously reconnecting with figures from his teenage years and childhood.
After the tedious and overrated “Fences” I was starting to wonder if the Academy were giving nominations and awards to films telling African-American stories merely to correct accusations of ‘white-washing’ at the awards ceremony in the couple of years beforehand (Wrong accusations if you ask me). This 2016 tale from writer-director Barry Jenkins (mostly a maker of short films prior to this) won the Oscar for Best Picture among other awards…is worth the hype and accolades. A really good film, and not just because it’s a rare African-American representation of homosexuality in cinema, but basically because it’s just really bloody good. I found this quite a moving and interesting experience. It reminded me of a bleaker and better “Boyhood”. It’ll be too dark a journey for some to take, I understand that. However, unlike “Precious” this one never quite crossed that line into being off-putting, and it’s both a worthy subject and a worthy film.
Whoever cast the film did a great job in finding Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders to play the main character as a boy and teenager respectively. The transition is pretty damn seamless. Admittedly the transition from Sanders to Trevante Rhodes as the adult ‘Black’ is a little more difficult to swallow, but through Rhodes’ excellent, heartbreaking performance it still works. Your heart aches for this man and everything he has been going through both internally and externally in his life. I can understand why Naomie Harris was initially apprehensive about taking on a role that lends itself to negative cultural stereotyping. However, this is a worthy film and she’s so bloody good in the role that she disappears into it. I’ve seen a lot of actors play addicts in my time, and Harris is one of the best. Scarily believable without going over-the-top, the Oscar-nominated Harris is twice as good as the Oscar-winning Viola Davis (who was jolly good in the otherwise terrible “Fences”), who was wrongly placed in the Supporting Actress category anyway. Also worthy of a mention is an excellent, if brief turn by an Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali (who at times looks like a young, emaciated Lou Gossett Jr.) as a well-meaning but obviously unhealthy role model for the main character (the film is more about masculinity and the African-American male than it is specifically about sexuality), and singer-actress Janelle Monae stealing her every scene as Ali’s girlfriend, a sweet and more stable parental influence on the main character.
Based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who co-scripted), the film isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s unfortunately rather choppy, with at least one seemingly very important supporting character vanishing out of nowhere and not adequately explained. That’s a shame, because this film otherwise is very strong stuff and perhaps would’ve benefitted from being slightly longer. The final scenes in particular are full of tension leading to an ending that is actually quite beautiful.
A worthy subject and a strong, if flawed film. The journey will be too tough for some to take, but for those who can soldier on, it’s ultimately really moving and important cinema. This one’s worth the hype for sure, one of the year’s best.