The man’s name is Juan. He finds the boy hiding in an abandoned apartment and takes him home and feeds him. The boy won’t speak. He doesn’t speak because no one ever listens to him. Not the other boys who bully him and call him “faggot”. Not his crack-addicted mother.
But Juan listens. Or tries to.
He and his partner Teresa set a place for him at their table. And make up a bed for him. They let him sleep peacefully and in the morning when he tells them his name is Chiron and where he lives Juan returns him to the toxic home from which he comes.
Later, Juan takes the boy down to the beach and coaxes him into the water. He shows him how to float and the basics of how to swim. He cradles him in the water holding him like a baby, or like a baptism.
It’s the beginning of a touching friendship, depicted in the opening chapter of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, a powerful film about growing up poor, black and queer in America.
But we know that Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, isn’t just a kindly neighbor. We know he’s a crack dealer. We know this because we’ve seen him plying his trade earlier in the film. And at first we think that Juan’s interest in Chiron is more sinister. We fear he might be grooming the boy to one day work a corner for him. Or worse. We hope his kindness toward the boy is genuine, but we’ve seen too many tragic stories about drug dealers and the collateral damage to those around them.
This is the first of several surprises in Moonlight. The tenderness of Juan’s love for Chiron is without compromise. He teaches him to swim. He touches him safely. His door is always open to him when he has to flee his erratic mother. These early scenes, shared by Juan and the boy are rare moments of real kindness in the boy’s life.
Chiron opens up about the terrible state his mother is in because of her crack addiction, and then he asks Juan whether he sells crack for a living. Reluctantly, Juan admits he does (he’s Chiron’s mother’s dealer), and as he does, he slumps in his chair, ashamed. The scene ends. It’s devastating.
Much has been written about this film’s depiction of the loneliness, alienation and violence experienced by so many young, black, gay men. I don’t feel qualified to reflect on that aspect of the film, but the portrayal of Juan’s friendship with Chiron touched me. It’s beautiful. And heartbreaking. Chiron knows that Juan, and men like him, are destroying his mother. But never has a man shown such tenderness, such unconditional love, toward him. And he is ravenous with father-hunger. Any father figure, even one as flawed as Juan, is better than none at all.
In the third chapter of the film we meet Chiron as a young man. And sure enough, he looks exactly like Juan. He wears a black leather durag. He drives a big car. He deals drugs. The imprinting of Juan’s fatherly example has left its mark. In Chiron’s broken world the best he could aspire to was to emulate the only older man who ever showed him love, even though the drug trade destroyed his family and nearly killed his mother. We find our fathers wherever we can, that’s how desperate we are for a father figure in our lives.
And yet fatherless in America is at an all-time high. Over 40% of all children born in the US in 2010 were born to unwed mothers. For African-American children, it’s 72%. Nearly a quarter (23.6%) of all American children are living with their mother only. David Blankenhorn, author of the book Fatherless America, has observed that fatherlessness is “the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crimes to adolescent pregnancy to child abuse to domestic violence against women.”
In their article “The Presence of the Social Father in Inhibiting Young Men’s Violence”, Wade Mackey & Ronald Immerman confirmed that the “presence of a residential and biological father reduces the likelihood of violent behavior by his sons,” and “data analyzed across the U.S. indicate that father absence, rather than poverty, [is] the stronger predictor of young men’s violent behavior.”
The story told in Moonlight confirms my observation that when there is the absence of a father, young men will look for a replacement wherever they can. When fathers neglect their children they leave a gaping hole in their lives that they try to fill any way they can. The depiction of the relationship between a young boy and the drug dealer who is both destroying his life and offering him the sweetest tenderness is utterly devastating to watch.
For those of you who are fathers, please be aware of the staggering responsibility you bear. Your children will be shaped by you, either by emulating your example or by searching for a replacement for you.
When men speak about the father-heart of God they bear even added responsibility to measure up. We can’t preach that God is always loving and always present when we model absence or distraction. Boys and girls need fathers.
Just like God.
What a responsibility!
8 thoughts on “We find our fathers where we can”
My biological dad left when I was three. Step dad came and went. The father wound is real and ever-present. Becoming a father of three children has been an elixir of sorts. But knowing God as father has been the greatest balm for a weary and lonely soul.
Peace to you, brother. You’re rewriting a family script, which is a BIG deal.
Great article Mike… “Present. Tender. Gentle. Merciful. Just like God” How disappointing that many within the christian ‘family’ don’t “hear’ or sense those qualities. I was listening to Deitrick Haddon’s song ‘Well Done”. Great song but it’s plaintive lyric “I just want to be let in and to hear ‘well done'” still suggests a distant God with qualified love and welcome. We’re not doing well with this.
Well said Mike! The potential for tragedy and the potential for something deeply wonderful to pervade a life are ever present in the father/child connection. May we be always thinking, intentional and responsive to the fragile heart of a child.
I haven’t seen the film, but your post about it is an inspiration to watch it. There’s something about the visceral reality of the human drama that challenges me as a pastor to re-assess what I speak to and how I speak to it.
I had a dad, but he was a very busy man, and probably without realizing it he was caught up in his own life in a way that didn’t allow him to focus much on mine or my sisters. But there were men who did. And they shaped me…often not for the better. I can definitely resonate with this concept of being father-starved.
I am so grateful to have met Christ. And I am so grateful to have been introduced to a Father whose shaping influence on me is inestimable and yet measurable.
Thanks for writing this.
You need to be aware the film is chiefly about the black homosexual experience – the bullying, the violence, the loneliness. The aspect I explore – father-hunger – isn’t central, although it pervades the story. It’s also a powerful insight into why so many young men turn to drug dealing, even though they know the dreadful repercussions.
Excellent post. I have not seen the movie yet, but have seen some of the others in the Oscar’s list of nominees. I can see there is emphasis in masculinities with paternity figures that are problematic, such as in “Manchester by the sea”, with a traumatized father due to his incompetence, or the violent father figure in “Hacksaw Ridge”, that leads to a non-violent stance for the young boy, and of course the difficult relationship between father and sons in “Fences”. Masculine heroic spirituality is portrayed in the “Silence” movie, showing also a world of male religious figures that dominated Christianity for many centuries. In spite of the fact that these are movies set in cultural environments that are so different to the Latin American culture where I live, I can see the universality of this topic, and that father hunger, violence, absence, abuse, incompetence have the same effects wherever we are.