“Moonlight,” five stars out of five. In theaters.
“Moonlight,” director Barry Jenkins’ moving three-act film, chronicles the trials and maturity of an African-American man coming to terms with his sexuality. Three acts take place over a course of three decades starting with 1996 with Little (Alex R. Hibbert), the protagonist as a bullied kid, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), under his birth name as a teenager, and Black (Trevante Rhodes), the tough incarnation of a man in his 20s.
Jenkins links the acts together with Little/Chiron/Black’s relationships with his drug-addict mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) and his evolving friendship with Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland). The director also connects his story to the struggles of South Florida, from immigration to the grips of drugs in the community. There was one item of “Moonlight” that had me crying for hours after watching it, a deeper connection that had been stored in my memory that was awaken in a powerful way. That totem was an air freshener.
The opening sequence features drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) rolling up to a trap spot in an older vehicle. On the dashboard is a crown-shaped air freshener. In the early 1990s in the South, these regal decorations were popular automotive accessories.
My father managed an auto parts store in Georgia during this time, and the crowns were on display at the front. Retailing at about $10 apiece, my teenager self thought they were the gaudiest things to place in a car, and I wasn’t afraid to share my opinion on it in front of customers, much to my father’s dislike. I would see them, sometimes more than one, inside cars that were worth not much more than the object. Seeing the crown in this scene recalled my feelings of how much I didn’t like them and how I thought they illustrated materialistic obsessions over improving one’s situation.
Juan serves as a father figure to Little, teaching him how to swim and to love his blackness. He is also a conflicted character, knowing that as he sells drugs to Little’s mom that he is putting the boy in danger. Little doesn’t speak much during their times together, but he is a sponge in the environment he is in.
It’s manifested in the third act with Black, using the nickname teenage Kevin gave him in high school. Here, Black is a drug dealer in Atlanta, driving a vehicle similar to Juan’s with a crown air freshener on the dashboard. Black’s occupation and choice of accessories shows his connection with Juan. The air freshener these days aren’t as readily available as they were 20 years ago, so Black would have sought out this object to honor his surrogate father.
Black travels to Miami to see Kevin after a 10-year absence. After a defining scene in the diner where Kevin works, Black offers him a ride, with the air freshener, Black’s buffed-up exterior and a chopped-and-skewed version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” serving as barriers protecting him. Kevin tries to figure out who Black is now, but it takes a while for Black to bear his soul to the man he loves.
That was when the tears began to flow for me. I thought about my teenage year. I thought about my father. I thought about those cheesy air fresheners.
Their presence here reminded me of another mass-produced, childhood object that holds significant importance in cinema – Charles Foster Kane’s sled. “Citizen Kane,” while serving as the telling of the larger-than-life media magnate, is the search for the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” From the surreal opening sequence to the film’s conclusion, the sled is a link to the one thing that didn’t ask Kane to be more than what he was. It didn’t seek power or demand money; it was a symbol of a simpler time.
The crown may not develop the same following as Rosebud or even the spinning top in “Inception.” For me, it will be one of the strongest connections I had ever felt to a film.