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!