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One indelible scene shows Juan holding Chiron in his arms in a rippling blue ocean, teaching him to float—which is another way of teaching him the letting go that comes with trust, with love.
He can’t afford to; this situation, any situation, could be changed in an instant by a gun or a knife.
It’s hard for a man of color walking those sun-bleached streets not to watch his back or feel that his days are numbered.
That’s how Juan (the beautiful Mahershala Ali) carries himself—defensively, warily. He may be a boss on the streets—his black do-rag is his crown—but he’s intelligent enough to know that he’s expendable, that real power doesn’t belong to men like him. Stepping out of his car, Juan asks a cranky drug runner what’s up.
It’s a vicious cycle, in which the characters are oppressed by everything but hope. That he is able to pluck that feeling out of the darkness of those Miami nights makes him a classically heroic figure: he knows his limitations, he knows that life is tragic, but he is still willing to dream.
About thirty minutes into the film, Chiron, sitting at Juan and Teresa’s orderly table, asks what a faggot is.
For instance, Juan doesn’t take that runaway kid under his wing in order to pimp him out and turn him into a drug runner; instead, he brings him home to feed him, nourish him.
Juan lives in a small, unassuming house with his soft-spoken but confident partner, Teresa (played by the singer Janelle Monáe).
And he knows he counts even more when Juan calls him by his nickname—Little—as a way of claiming him.“Faggot” is another name, and it’s one that Chiron hears often as he grows up. He lives in public housing with his single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who goes on drug binges, less to alleviate her sadness than to express her wrath—against the world and, especially, against her son, who she thinks keeps her from the world.
Chiron lives for the moments when he can get away from his mother’s countless recriminations and needs, and swim in the unfamiliar waters of love with Juan and Teresa.
Based on a story by the gay black playwright Tarell Alvin Mc Craney—Jenkins himself is not gay—the film is virtuosic in part because of Jenkins’s eye and in part because of the tale it tells, which begins in nineteen-eighties Miami.
Four white Miami-Dade police officers have beaten a young black man to death and been acquitted of manslaughter, setting off riots in the city’s black enclaves—Liberty City, Overtown, and elsewhere.
Scene follows scene with the kind of purposefulness you find in fairy tales, or in those Dickens novels about boys made and unmade by fate.