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Film Review: Moonlight

Moonlight (2016; Directed by Barry Jenkins)

The idiomatic term “identity politics” is used so frequently and so all-encompassingly to describe, explain, and categorize the contours of American society and culture that the phrase has lost much of the essence of its meaning. It is called into service to make sense of political movements from the Obama coalition to the Tea Party, from Berners to Trumpites; social issues from same-sex marriage to police violence, abortion to health care coverage; and products of entertainment and culture across the ideological spectrum. The core insight of identity politics, one supposes, is that politics, society, and culture are naught but conduits to express who we are, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, faith (or lack thereof), sexuality, education and income level, language, geography, and whatever other elements might make up a coherent expression of self. The upshot of the centrality of identity politics to American public life is that politics, society, and culture become battlegrounds for conflict between individuals and groups that define themselves (at least partly, in some cases primarily) in opposition to others.

Moonlight, a micro-budget independent film that won a surprise Best Picture Academy Award in February of this year, is a sensitive and perceptive identity politics picture. What makes it so sensitive and perceptive is not merely that it represents nuances and gradations of self-definition within the often monolithically-delineated identity tent of African-Americans, or of LGBT persons, for that matter. Moonlight is preternaturally wise about how socioeconomic context, racial history and stereotyping, and familial influence shape identity, indeed force it into well-worn grooves, which more often than not lead straight over the edge of sheer cliffs. And for a nation deeply entrenched in those grooves of doom, here can be found a note of hard-won hope that small but vital epiphanies of personal understanding can be achieved with concerted, not-unpainful effort and no small measure of courage.

Moonlight explores these issues and more with a quiet eloquence through a narrative split between three stages in the young life of Chiron, a sensitive, potentially homosexual teenaged boy and later young adult man in Miami. In the first section, entitled “i. Little” (after his diminishing then-nickname), Chiron (played in this youngest form by Alex Hibbert) withdraws quietly from the homophobic abuse of his classmates and the traumas of living with his drug-addicated single-mother Paula (a remarkably raw Naomie Harris), finding fleeting security, happiness, and surrogate-father mentorship with Cuban-born drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, who spends perhaps 15-20 minutes onscreen and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that it’s hard to say he didn’t deserve, which tells you how good he is).

In the second section (“ii. Chiron”, wearing his own name like an ill-fitting shirt he hopes to grow into), with Juan gone and his mother’s troubles intensifying, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) finds rewarding friendship and sexual awakening with a classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) before peer pressures tear them violently apart. In the third section (“iii. Black”, a nickname from Kevin embraced as an armoured suit of toughness), adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) tries to pull himself away from a difficult path he always hoped to avoid, reconciling with his mother and with an older Kevin (André Holland) and reconnecting with a part of himself that he felt obliged to lock deep in the basement of his inner being.

There’s a simplicity and directness to Moonlight‘s coming-of-age themes that belies their complexity and the artistic skill at work in their propagation and exploration by director Barry Jenkins. The bare reality of the film’s settings is dappled with South Florida humidity (James Laxton is the cinematographer) that lends a heightened, lustrous power to the story being told (Jenkins wrote the screenplay too, based on an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney). Jenkins uses close-ups, long shots, cutaway inserts, rotating and following camera movements, symmetrical framings, and an idiosyncratic soundtrack of classical music and composed film score with snatches of classic R&B and aggressive hip-hop to express moments of realization and obscurity, understanding and misunderstanding, despair, anxiety, joy, and hope in Chiron’s experiences. The film’s closing shot is not only tremendously beautiful, but is also an all-time-great thematic and symbolic cinematic summation, paying off a poetic earlier utterance by Juan and suggesting that Chiron might just be okay with who he is, after everything he’s endured.

Jenkins further heightens the tone with resonant, referential religious imagery. Juan takes Little Chiron swimming and holds his small body up on the surface of the waves, an ocean baptism with a note of miraculous water-walking. In both of their intimate meetings, Kevin cradles Chiron’s head with exquisite tenderness, like a Renaissance sculpture of Madonna with the child Christ. Janelle Monáe plays Juan’s almost divinely gorgeous and entirely kind girlfriend, and she is named Teresa like the saint. And Chiron’s enduring image of his mother is a hellish nightmare tableau, Paula backlit with devilish crimson light as she screams soundlessly, imploring her son not to look at her like a guilty sinner under the harsh glare of the Judgement.

The range of cultural, religious, and aesthetic associations harnessed by Jenkins to probe the crystallizing shape of Chiron’s identity suggests the complexity, or at least the fluidity, the malleability, of that identity. Moonlight suggests that the identity of young gay black men is entirely too malleable. Gay black men are equally subject to the drastic erosive pressures of the demonstrative imperatives of strength and toughness that define straight (or “cis”, if we’re being properly terminology-sensitive) African-American masculinity, but are unequally re-formed by those pressures, their core gay identity effectively erased or at least suppressed by this hegemonic context.

That will to hardness is therefore understood to be threatened or even contradicted by perceived homosexual “weakness”. It can thus incorporate homophobia and misogyny, so lamented by white observers when it is descried in black masculinity’s dominant creative discourse of rap lyrics. That there are historically deep-seated and contemporaneously very active discriminatory racist imperatives shaping this masculine discourse is rarely acknowledged and often swiftly disavowed when it is. There is an understanding that African-American men (and women, too) have to be tough to survive in an American society still ruled by white supremacist assumptions and the myriad discriminations related to them. A more old-fashioned and conservative strain of this understanding rejects homosexual identity as an unacceptable compromise, a choice to be more vulnerable (not that it’s a choice, as we know better now) in the face of a racially-determined context of already-crippling vulnerability. It’s hard enough to be black in America, this line of thought may go, so why make it harder by being gay as well?

These attitudes and tendencies among African-American men, these undercurrents of identity politics, are incorporated into the textures of Moonlight, as are the forces of family and the dark allure of crime, and they fundamentally shape Chiron’s struggles with who he is and who he will become. What Moonlight recognizes, with a surge of inspiring wisdom and empathy embodied in the film’s final shot, is that for Chiron to embrace the full spectrum of his identity, for him to be black and to be gay, takes an impressive amount of strength. Anyone who knows a LGBT person cannot persist in any misapprehension about their weakness. Coming out requires a strength that many who never face up to such a daunting task cannot fathom, let alone hope to possess; perhaps operating in a white-dominated world as a black person demands a similar firmness of will. Moonlight takes the momentous personal struggle to build up to this strength and makes it resonantly beautiful. In that way, it represents something close to the pinnacle of what cinema, of what art, can hope to achieve.

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