Actor Trevante Rhodes is open and gregarious. Chiron, the man he plays in the shimmering Moonlight, is suspicious and reticent. Rhodes is straight. Chiron is gay. Rhodes comes from a stable family. Chiron had to raise himself.
Rhodes, who used to take handoffs from current Dallas Cowboys standout Cole Beasley at Little Elm High School, did some acting before Moonlight. But he never realized how acting could transport him to an entirely different place, into an entirely different person, until Barry Jenkins' masterpiece came along.
His epiphany arrived early in the shoot, during a scene with Naomie Harris. Harris is garnering Oscar buzz for her performance as Chiron's mother, who was too busy partying and smoking crack to rear her only child. Now she's in recovery, trying to convince Chiron that she loves him and that it matters.
For the young actor, it was like an out-of-body experience.
"We were just on a different planet, and I was watching us do this thing, and feeling this sensation, feeling these emotions that I had never felt before," Rhodes recalls. He kept thinking: "This is what this is about. This is therapeutic. This isn't just pretend. This is really happening."
A deeply personal but widely resonant work of art, Moonlight tracks Chiron from childhood, when he's a bullied little kid reeling from the word "faggot," to his teen years, ruled by anger and sexual confusion, to adulthood, after a stint in prison for assault. We see Chiron, played in the three sections of the film by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Rhodes, develop a mask of hyper-masculinity as he retreats within himself. By the time Rhodes arrives, Chiron is a heavily muscled drug dealer with grills on his teeth and a haunted look on his face.
It's a gorgeous film that perfectly integrates realism with lyrical splendor, a study of evolving identity that specifically explores the subject of black masculinity.
Chiron's mother is quick to point out the funny way he runs, and his constant imperilment as a bully magnet. He becomes a sullen teen, and just when a brief sexual encounter gives him hope, violence and rage knock him back down. You suspect he might stay down, but Moonlight, for all its pain, is shot through with hope.
Homophobia is hardly specific to any group, but Rhodes, 26, sees it as especially pernicious and hypocritical in the black community.
"We complain about being oppressed, yet we oppress ourselves," he says. "We're born with our pigment darker than others, and we get oppressed for that. Then we have individuals who are born loving the same sex, and we do the same thing to them that was done to us. Kicking your brother in the face for how he was born. It baffles me, man. It's mind-boggling."
Jenkins based the film on Tarell Alvin McRaney's autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Both Jenkins and McRaney grew up in Liberty City, a tough part of Miami that takes on a luminescent pastel beauty in the film. Both men had mothers who wrestled with drug addiction.
For them, Moonlight is clearly personal.
Then again, Rhodes thinks it should be personal for everyone.
"We are all skin, blood, and bones," he says. "We're all connected. We're on this same earth."