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Trevante Rhodes's Moonlight performance is multilayered and heartbreakingly vulnerable

It might be the best of the year.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight

The trickiest question movie awards–giving groups face this December is posed by a character named Chiron.

He’s the main character in Barry Jenkins’s universally heralded movie Moonlight, the story of a young black man coming to terms with not just his sexuality but also his identity, against the backdrop of Miami.

Moonlight is an extraordinary, sensitive, beautiful movie told in three chapters — each named for what people call him during that period of his life. In each chapter, Chiron is played by a different actor. As a child who’s called “Little,” he’s played by Alex Hibbert, as a teenager going by his given name, Ashton Sanders, and as a grown man sporting gold fronts and nicknamed “Black,” by Trevante Rhodes.

All three actors are marvelous, which presents some difficulty for awards-giving groups, which typically segment their awards by categories like Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor — categories that presuppose the same actor plays a character for the whole movie. But Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes get roughly equal screen time. And making the choice is tough.

The solution, thus far, has been all or nothing. In late November, the Gotham Awards elected to present the entire cast (which includes a wealth of talent) with a special ensemble award. The Critics Choice Awards (which are announced on December 11) nominated Alex Hibbert for a Best Young Actor prize. The Independent Spirit Awards (awarded on February 25) nominated the ensemble for their Robert Altman Award. And several groups — including the New York Film Critics Circle and the LA Film Critics Circle — have nominated or awarded Best Supporting Actor to Mahershala Ali, who turned in a terrific performance as Juan, a drug dealer and father figure to Chiron. Ali is poised to be a frontrunner for the same award at the Oscars on February 26.

But after seeing Moonlight twice, it’s Rhodes’s performance as grown-up Chiron that won’t leave me.

Rhodes’s performance brings vulnerability to a character who’s set it aside

Hibbert and Sanders, as child and teenage Chiron, are both uncannily good at playing a character who’s been made too afraid by the world to even speak, most of the time. Their faces, wide-eyed, like frightened rabbits ready to bolt, and their posture — bent from years of trying to hide — tell the whole story. But by virtue of their youth and relatively slight physical stature, both already read as vulnerable onscreen.

Rhodes, though, is a muscular actor (he was a track star at the University of Texas and competed at the Pan Am Junior Championships in 2009) with a strong screen presence. In real life, he has an open smile and an easy manner. His iteration of Chiron is guarded, ripped, and imposing, but in contrast to his teenage self, he fills up space, having learned from time in juvie and then on the corner how to hide his vulnerability under a hard exterior.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight.

When we meet grown-up Chiron, it takes a moment to realize who we’re looking at. He’s not ducking anymore, no longer cowed. He sports gold fronts, a stud earring, a black do-rag, and a chain. He jokes with an associate who clearly finds him intimidating. He’s learned the script that will let him fit in, even rise to success.

That exterior barely cracks when he visits his mother at a rehab facility — anger is the emotion he feels most, even more than love. But in an exquisite moment, Chiron picks up the phone to find Kevin (André Holland), his long-lost friend and the only man who’s ever touched him, on the other end. In that moment, Rhodes melts — but in the way Chiron would. He goes rigid, any easy manner totally gone, his face poised somewhere between delight and fear. Every emotion runs through his eyes (and there’s nowhere to look — he’s on the phone!).

Later, when he arrives at the diner where Kevin works, all the feelings that marked young Chiron return, even in the face of Kevin’s ease. Rhodes plays Chiron as awkward, nervous, wanting to be accepted and worried that Kevin resents him, wondering why he called, wondering why he’s even there. His posture curls just a little, his smile grows less calculated.

Rhodes inhabits all three chapters of Chiron

This continuity between the performances is partly a testament to Jenkins as director — the three actors who play Chiron never even met until the film was finished shooting, so it wasn’t as if Rhodes is mimicking the other two actors’ performances. The entire sequence is set up to mimic Chiron’s earlier incarnations, too: sitting across the table from a man who means a lot to him, just as young Chiron did with Juan; leaning, eventually, on Kevin’s shoulder, like the two did as teenagers on the beach.

But it’s also clear that Rhodes so completely inhabits the character that all three layers are there: world-hardened adult, frustrated teenager, and tiny, vulnerable boy. He answers questions with reticence, all his self-protection shifting from adult swagger back to younger silence. Past and present are in his eyes, his uncertain half-smile that seems poised almost on the edge of tears, the desperate fear of rejection written across his face.

I’m sitting here thinking about it and getting chills again. Rhodes is the anchor of the film, by my lights, and his performance is its emotional core. There’s something universal in his performance, something everyone can resonate with, but it’s the particularity of it — the way every element of this character, his particular history and struggles, resurfaces in his face — that makes it a standout, even in one of the year’s best films. He probably won’t get solo recognition, and maybe that’s fair. But I hope we get to see a lot more of his work soon.

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