Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins)
Moonlight is an American masterpiece. Of films I’ve seen in the last ten years, I place it up there with The Master or The Witch, as a piece of cinema that is sure of itself on technical, thematic, and character levels. It tells a story that is primarily American, but yet not beyond connecting with people universally.
The film is told in three acts, each one chronicling a pivotal moment in the personal development of Chiron, a black youth living in Miami, Florida. We first glimpse Chiron (nicknamed “Little”) as he runs from school bullies and hides in a boarded-up tenement. It’s here he meets Juan, the head of the local drug sellers and the older man sees something inside this struggling kid. He takes Chiron to his home to meet his wife, Teresa, and they manage to get Chiron to share a little bit about his life. Later, Juan delivers Chiron home, and we meet the mother, Paula who knows what Juan does and attempts to shield her child from him. Later, we learn Paula is connected to Juan, and this knowledge shapes the relationship between Chiron and the man.
The second act catches up with Chiron in high school where the bullying has continued. Throughout both these acts, his one constant is his friend Kevin, a boy who doesn’t treat Chiron with the revulsion and hate the others do. It is made apparent that our protagonist is questioning his sexuality and finds himself attracted to Kevin and that attraction may be reciprocated. Their relationship comes to a painful conclusion in this act, and then we transition to adulthood. Here Chiron has made himself into the person he thinks he should be but is struggling with his past. This all leads to a reunion between himself and Kevin that will bring out their past and hint at their future.
I had to fight back the tears at two moments in this film. The final scene between Chiron and Juan is profoundly painful and the final scene between Chiron and Kevin is a release of emotions and honesty. The element of the film that I want to praise director Jenkins the most for was the refusal to have a villain. No one is the villain, but many people make horrible choices that hurt people. However, Jenkins chooses to reveal layers to these characters that make a reductive judgement of good/evil near impossible. Juan is a strong of example of this, and my overall favorite character in the film. He is responsible for crack cocaine being in the neighborhood and this business ends up having a direct adverse effect on Chiron. Juan is unaware at first and wants to be a father figure to this kid he sees in need of one. Chiron’s mother rightly suspects Juan is attempting to pull her child into the drug trade. But we learn more about her own connection to Juan and that becomes more complicated. Juan is not a villain but he is responsible for great harm in the community. The scene where he comes to this realization and then also has to admit it to young Chiron is heart-rending. This really highlights the idea that as often as we think we are the “hero” in our own story, we can so easily be the “villain” in another’s.
The acting throughout Moonlight is superb. Chiron is played by a succession of three actors: Alex R. Hibbert (Chiron at 9), Ashton Sanders (Chiron as a teen), and Trevante Rhodes (Chiron as an adult). It’s weird to say I was glad Rhodes didn’t get a Best Actor nomination for an Oscar, but that is only because the character is a collective of three commanding performances. The only way to do justice would have been to have a single nomination for three actors. I have not read much about the production and rehearsal process but the synchronicity between these performances is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have to wonder if the movie was made sequentially so that Hibbert set the foundation of the performance, Sanders studied that and adapted, and finally Rhodes was a culmination of his own thoughts of the character filtered through these two others. As a result, Chiron is one of the most fully realized characters I have ever seen on screen. He is a living breathing person who I feel like I’ve met.
As a public school teacher, I’ve worked mainly in the inner city for the seven years of my career. As a result, I have worked with some young men much like Chiron. I have also worked with young black men who are happy and healthy and have very supportive families. So, I don’t think we should view Moonlight as a universal truth of the “black male experience” so much as it is about how masculinity is framed for so many black men. The scenes where Chiron sits at Juan and Teresa’s kitchen table eating food and refusing to speak has been a part of my life. I’ve sat across from young men who are so tormented inside at such an early age. Food is about the only nurture some of them get. I’ve watched young black men crying because they’ve injured themselves only to have their mother smack them over the back of the head and spit “Stop crying and being a pussy! Men don’t cry!” Even with my current year’s class, I have a young black male student who finds it deeply difficult to verbalize his frustration even when it is just the two of us talking. He didn’t want to say sorry to another student he upset in front of everyone because he’d been taught that would make him look weak and his status among his peers is more important to his livelihood than his conscience. This sort of toxic masculinity is what Moonlight is all about. And it’s why the brief glimpse we get of Chiron being able to stop tensing, stop holding himself back is so emotionally cathartic.
I had seen Barry Jenkins’ previous feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, and while it is a great independent character focused film, he has made a significant leap across all elements of filmmaking with Moonlight. This is going to be a defining American film and is going to resonate for many years to come. The intersection of LGBT people and People of Color can be a tough one. Growing up in the South, I have been an outsider and observer of this intersection, and the deeply religious pockets of the black community can be as brutally homophobic as their white counterparts. At the same time, I have seen same sex relationships between women accepted without much strife. It is when men reveal their nature as gay that fear boils up, across all communities. Power is assumed to be heterosexuality, and Moonlight shows that strength doesn’t come from a particular sexual orientation, rather a personal resolve and determination, aided by people in your life who show you what love can be.