What makes a man a dad? Having a child? No. That just makes him a father.
What makes a man a dad is raising a child. Taking responsibility for that human being. Guiding and steering that child. Exposing that child to the world. Encouraging both effort and mistakes. And allowing that child to be who he or she is, whatever that is.
Moonlight, which last night won the Oscar for Best Picture, is about dadhood in the best sense. There’s no father in the film. The main character, Chiron, who grows up in three chapters, is parented by his mom, who’s a crack addict. Loving, but a crack addict. The only man Chiron seems to know is Juan, a drug dealer played by the brilliant Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor.
The two meet when Chiron is a child, and though after that initial chapter we do not see Juan again, his essence remains, his effect as powerful as a fragrance. Lingering and influential. Juan becomes Chiron’s friend. He gives him a place to sleep, a refuge from the increasingly questionable home he shares with his mom. But most important, he gives Chiron swimming lessons. He takes him out into the Atlantic (the film is set in Miami) and shows him how to float, how not to drown. It’s wide open on that day, sun and sky, and two guys who somehow rely on each other. Juan holds Chiron’s head above water, and I think it’s safe to say that Chiron holds Juan himself above water. It’s a small yet stunning scene.
Years later, we see Chiron as a grown man. The small child became a scrawny teenager and then later the exact opposite: a muscular man, a man with a confident swagger. Chiron grows into someone who looks like Juan, even down to the gold grill.
After the childhood he had, it’s no surprise to learn that Chiron is afraid. Who wouldn’t be? He’s afraid as we all are, wondering who he is, why he is, and where he’s going in this life. Through him, we come to realize who Juan really was—and we see how deep the impression can be of a man who steps up to be a kid’s dad. We saw Juan teach Chiron how to swim, how to make his way in the world. We saw Juan teach Chiron how to be.
The brilliance of Moonlight is that is about a man we see who illuminates a man we don’t. Juan is a man who understood that he could be a dad without actually being a father. Though we don’t see how this affected him, we see what Juan left Chiron: a priceless roadmap into the future, in which a young boy finds the courage, over time, to be simply himself.
If that’s not being a dad, I don’t know what is.