The same morning the two-minute trailer for director Barry Jenkins’ second feature film, Moonlight, was released, actor Trevante Rhodes, who portrays the adult version of the central character, Chiron, was working out in the gym. An hour after the snippet’s debut, a red-eyed, shaking fan approaches the compassionate, strikingly handsome performer, insisting to Rhodes that Moonlight is “his story.”
That moment catches Rhodes by surprise. The random meeting validates to the breakout star the relatability of his onscreen presence. “That was the most important moment I had in a very long time,” insists the charming actor leaning back in his chair. “You read something, do the work and know that it has the power and the ability to touch people. Whenever someone vocalizes that to you, that’s the best thing in the world.”
Rhodes, 26, appears in Moonlight’s third act as Chiron’s hypermasculine, minimal-speaking alter ego, “Black” a handsome, chiseled, gold grill-wearing drug dealer living in Atlanta. “Black” escapes from his isolated, tumultuous childhood (portrayed by young actors Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders) in Miami’s low income Liberty City community following a stint in prison. A young Chiron, or “Little,” endures low self-esteem, insecurity, excessive bullying from his classmates, confusion about his sexuality and an estranged relationship with his drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). A caring Cuban-born drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his equally nurturing girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), become “Little’s” surrogate guardians.
“Black” returns to his hometown a decade later: slightly rekindling a bromance with childhood friend, Kevin (Andre Holland), still unable to love, trust or fully acknowledge his personal truth.
Rhodes, an All-American track standout at the University of Texas at Austin, who was discovered while conditioning, originally read for the role of Kevin. Upon seeing him, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins insisted Rhodes audition for the role of Chiron instead. A competitive, record-breaking sprinter, Rhodes, attempting to avoid sounding cocky, believes he was able to make a fluid transition from athletics into acting.
Rhodes draws a parallel between auditioning for a role and running out of his starter blocks. “It’s the most individualized team sport,” declares the easygoing Lousiana-born, Texas-raised soon-to-be movie heartthrob. “You bust your butt on your own time on your own terms. You can’t focus on what’s going on in the next lane to do your best job in hopes to win.”
Consistently referring to filming Moonlight as “a unique sensation,” a relaxed Rhodes continues, “You could put forth your best effort and still not win because no matter what situation, someone else may get the role.”
When Rhodes fully read the script adapted from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, page three, he says, was the hook that kept him interested in the debut full-length project released by A24 Films. In an effort to keep the performances pure, Jenkins never allows Rhodes to meet the younger cast members who share his character during filming.
Occasionally finishing off Naomi Harris’ comments (Harris plays Rhodes’ mother in the film), Rhodes, who appears in If Loving You is Wrong, Open Windows and Westworld, says the lone scene he shares with the British actress strikes a chord with him. “The way that Barry [Jenkins] wrote the script, the beats in the script, the spacing about the script shows so much chemistry we have.”
“You saw how vivid it was; the blood, sweat and tears that Barry put into the pages. It was something that was so visceral,” Moonlight made its debut at this year’s Telluride Film Festival with subsequent screenings at Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. The 110-minute feature received a standing ovation at Telluride. The audience waited outside the theater to give the actors and production team another euphoric round of applause, which was a first in the film festival’s history. Revisiting the Telluride experience leaves Rhodes speechless.
Sharing many laughs with Harris, a self-conscious Rhodes is confident the film’s subject matter will resonate beyond the LGBTQ community. “No matter race, sex, age, orientation, everyone finds something that relates to them,” declares the star of the upcoming Netflix original film, Burning Sands.
“You have to allow yourself to look at people with open hearts and open eyes. Honestly, that’s the theme of the movie — to develop an understanding of everyone.”
Rhodes reiterates numerous times how he hopes that audiences who screen Moonlight will work towards understanding each other despite differences. Interacting with fans in the gym or witnessing audience reactions at film festivals have given Rhodes confidence in the film becoming a catalyst for helping people become more comfortable with who they are.
Moonlight, Rhodes says, will hopefully empower people to drop their prejudices in exchange for respecting and appreciating diversity. “Love is the most important currency we have as people,” insists Rhodes. “Stop judging people, because you have no idea what happened to them earlier that day, to make them be in a certain mood.”
Moonlight has a limited theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 21. A nationwide release date is slated for Oct. 28. Check local theaters for availability and showtimes.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a visiting instructor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.