Trevante Rhodes Shines in Moonlight, This Fall's Essential Queer Black Film

Ramona Rosales

Photography by Ramona Rosales. Sweater by Uniqlo. T-shirt by James Perse. Jeans by H&M. Sneakers by Rag & Bone.

Trevante Rhodes doesn’t have much time to make an impression in the new film Moonlight. Along with child actors Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders, he’s one of three players embodying lead character Chiron at different stages of his life, and he doesn’t even appear until the final act. By then, Rhodes’s peers have done most of the legwork in giving shape to Chiron, a lonely Miami boy who’s quietly — and very slowly — coming to grips with being gay. But Rhodes doesn’t need a whole lot of time to tear your heart in half, and Moonlight’s finest scene rests on his sculpted shoulders. As a grown Chiron who’s adopted hypermasculinity for survival, the jacked Rhodes makes an achingly vulnerable confession to his childhood crush, Kevin (André Holland), who looks on in the same way the audience does — as if he just watched a brick house implode.  

“One way I connected with Chiron is that, like him, I didn’t grow up with a father,” says Rhodes. “I think his lack of a male influence increased his need for love. But I’m also a hopeless romantic. I believe you find that one person who you’re supposed to be with, and I felt Chiron found that person early on.”

When Rhodes’s parents split, he was 4 and still living in his native New Orleans. At 10, he moved with his mother to Dallas, where a skill — but not a passion — for track and field would win him an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. “Even then, I despised running,” says the 26-year-old, who these days prefers boxing. “But it was a means to pay for school.” According to Rhodes, his fit body was also his ticket into the industry. College sparked the actor’s interest in theater, but he was simply taking it as an elective while pursuing a degree in “petroleum land management.” And then he wound up topless in front of the right person.

“In my last year of college, I was jogging on campus with my shirt off,” Rhodes says. “A casting director saw me, waved me down, and said, ‘You have to be in my movie.’ That was the start.”

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Shirt and suit by Topman. Belt by Original Penguin. Shoes by John Varvatos

The movie in question, a Nicolas Cage vehicle, didn’t work out for Rhodes, but he did soon land a part in the 2014 short film Open Windows with Elijah Wood, followed by a stint on the Fox series Gang Related, a gig on the yet-to-be-released HBO show Westworld, and a recurring role on Tyler Perry’s OWN comedy If Loving You Is Wrong. But none of that would compare to Moonlight, which opened Rhodes up to the world of gay playwright Tarell McCraney, whose semi-autobiographical work In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was adapted for the screen by writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy). 

“It was the best thing I’d ever read,” says Rhodes, who initially read for the role of Kevin before Jenkins offered him the lead. “I don't know how or why I got the opportunity to read it, but I was determined to book [the project].”

Rhodes is straight, but his close relationships with gay men and adjacencies to queer environments helped him sympathize with Chiron and connect with Moonlight’s emotional texture. One of Rhodes’s first friends in Dallas came out two years ago, and the pair remain best friends. “I knew what he went through, and I knew how hard it was for him to find himself,” Rhodes says. “We all have our insecurities.” A frequenter of clubs of all sorts, Rhodes says he was at West Hollywood’s gay hot spot the Abbey on the night before Orlando’s Pulse nightclub shooting. (Some believe the Abbey was a target of James Howell, the armed man who was nabbed by police while allegedly en route to Los Angeles Pride.)

“Our country is shit right now,” Rhodes says, pointedly. “Being a black person in America right now is shit, being a homosexual in America right now is shit, and being a black homosexual is the bottom for certain people. That’s why I’m so excited for people to see Moonlight. I don’t feel like there’s a solution for our problems, but this movie might change people. That’s why you do it — because you feel like you’re doing something that matters. This is someone’s story.”

Indeed, Moonlight feels like a movie of the moment. For all the effortless ebbs and flows of its nuanced progression, it offers forthright, unapologetic depictions of blackness and queerness, at a time when the visibility of both is vital. It features an all-black cast, takes place in an unequivocally black world (specifically, a small pocket of Miami at the height of the War on Drugs), and portrays Chiron’s experience with gay sex as healthy and formative (rarely has a movie made such elegant yet unabashed acknowledgments of ejaculation). It’s meaningful, too, that, barring a final shot, Rhodes is the last version of Chiron we see. He’s ostensibly strong yet terribly fragile, and, as Rhodes can attest, there’s a timeliness to that.

“I was in Virginia filming a movie recently, and while walking down the street, I was being followed by a police car,” the actor says. “I was just walking to the gym. I knew I was being followed, I looked back, and they made eye contact. They didn’t pretend to not be following me. I turned back and continued to walk. Being in that situation was the most frightening thing in the world to me.” 

True to his self-described romanticism, Rhodes speaks often of love. It doesn’t sound corny or “Kumbaya”-esque — it seems like a desperate plea on repeat. “Is there no way to make anything better?” he asks. “The only thing people need to do is love one another — for who they are and who they love.” However fleeting, there are rapturous moments in Moonlight that make you believe it could be that simple.

Moonlight opens in New York and L.A. October 21.      

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