Published on December 7th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Moonlight is a compassionate, beautifully rendered character study that asks you to watch the screen, but also to look inward to see your own identity.
Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, but because of the way the playwright saw snapshots of imagery in his head, he always knew it would work better as a film. Moonlight is based on McCraney’s real experiences, growing up black, gay, and poor in Miami in the 80s. He and director Barry Jenkins both grew up in Liberty City, both with crack-addicted mothers, and they wanted to make a movie about that experience (Jenkins isn’t gay, but was moved by McCraney’s story).
Moonlight follows a confused, bullied young man named Chiron through three periods of his life, first as a 10-year-old, then a teenager, then finally, as an adult. When he’s young, Chiron meets a drug dealer named Juan (and his girlfriend, played by singer Janelle Monáe), who gives him some of the love he’s missing at home as well as a haven from the bullies in the street. As Chiron gets older, he struggles with his identity and sexuality, which is hard enough for anyone, let alone someone growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood. (Also worth mentioning is an Oscar-worthy performance from Mahershala Ali (as Juan), who you might remember as Remy from House of Cards or Cottonmouth from Luke Cage).
Beautifully rendered, constructed with a floating, dreamlike candor but without losing sight of narrative efficiency, Moonlight’s aesthetics help it wriggle out from underneath what could be a Hallmark Movie of the Week story. It threatens to lean into such traps here and there, and the character of Kevin seems to turn up in moments where he is very convenient to the plot (which Chiron even hangs a lampshade on more than once), but the film manages to evade these pitfalls, often through its own subtlety and restraint.
Oddly enough, some of those moments on the razor’s edge are also some of the best moments in the film — they often ring false and true at the same time. A good example is a scene where Chiron asks Juan, “What is a faggot?” Juan thoughtfully answers, “A thing people say to make gay people feel bad.” I had trouble believing that a drug dealer in this particular world, 30-some years ago, would have such a progressive attitude, but on the other hand, the comment is a window to how much Juan cares about Chiron. And, to challenge my own perceptions — isn’t this a movie about eschewing stereotypes? Sometimes the very things characters do or say that make them feel obviously fictional in Moonlight are the very same things that make them seem more human.
I was listening to Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast the same day I saw the film, and he was going off about Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation and the hype that surrounded the film at Sundance (it was purchased for $17.5 million, the largest deal ever made at the festival). Ellis feels that Birth of a Nation is a mess of a film and that the feeding frenzy around the movie was due more to subject matter, PC culture, and timeliness, rather than the aesthetics of film. I don’t know what he thinks of Moonlight, but I think that it’s an interesting lens to look at the film through. Moonlight clearly has the chops and the aesthetics to be a great film, but I also wonder how much of it resonates because it feels very of the now?
Brokeback Mountain seems tame today, but when it was released, it was pushing the boundaries of homosexual love and intimacy on screen. But two pasty Hollywood cowboys are one thing and this so-called taboo has its own connotations in the community Moonlight focuses on. A movie about a gay black man having to lock his identity away makes Moonlight a brave comment in this particular moment in time, where race and sexuality are charged by news headlines and politics. I don’t mean to imply anything about the movie not being truly impactful, I’m just woolgathering, but I suppose time will tell if it seems so sweeping now because it’s the right time for the subject, or because the film really deserves to be a classic. Will those Hallmark tropes and convenient plot elements become more cringe-worthy as years go by? Or will they help the movie ring true?
What I do know is that on a character level, Chiron’s is one of the most heartbreaking and triumphantly personal stories in a long while. Through him, we see the outsider version of ourselves, the one taunted and bullied. I can’t say I ever had to deal with anything as bad as Chiron in my white privilege, but his search for himself resonated with me, as it should with anyone who is human. We’re all looking for ourselves. That’s what makes Chiron seem so real. And on a bigger picture scale, Moonlight cuts to the heart of humanity by asking how much we can really ever know ourselves. How much can others know who we are? How much are we even who we think we are?
I don’t want to give away what happens to Chiron, but I’ll say this: consider yourself lucky if you can look into the maelstrom, drown out all the other voices and outside expectations, step outside of other people’s perceptions of you, and truly know something about yourself. If you can do that for a few instants, or about a handful of things in your life, then perhaps you can rest your head knowing you’ve found a modicum of peace in this life.
And really, any movie that leaves you pondering the nature of both film and life in such a manner is a winner.