Dir. Barry Jenkins. U.S. 2016

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In its depiction of black people living in poverty, selling and using drugs and neglecting their children, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight might be accused of trafficking in racial stereotypes. What refutes this spurious accusation, however, is the film’s ability to create intimacy, compassion, and understanding of its characters as human beings caught in a system that degrades them and strips them of their humanity. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film focuses on three chapters in the life of Chiron, a gay, black boy living in near poverty in Miami in the 1980s. In the first section, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), known as Little because of his diminutive stature, is singled out for being different and bullied by those at school who are caught up in the herd mentality.

He rarely speaks, hiding his feelings from those around him, even from his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) who is a drug addict. Jenkins talks about Chiron’s silence in this way. “The way I grew up,” he said, “I was kind of a quiet kid. I ended up watching people a lot, more than interacting, in a certain way. And I think you can learn a lot more about people when they’re not speaking than you can when they’re speaking. People say, “Oh, you can learn more by actions than statements.” But I do think that when people are in repose, you really see beneath the surface.” The film’s use of an eclectic soundtrack, however, which includes music by Aretha Franklin, Boris Gardiner, Jidenna, Barbara Lewis, and others, often expresses the conflicting emotions that Chiron is unable to put into words.

The film is focused on two key relationships in Chiron`s life, that with his mother and with his only friend Kevin and opens as Little, being chased by bullies, hides in an unlocked apartment. There he is discovered huddling in a corner by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who, together with his girl friend Teresa, (Janelle Monáe) becomes the boy`s mentor, giving him food, shelter, and a place of refuge. In a scene of warmth and beauty, Juan teaches the boy how to swim and, in another deeply moving moment, when Chiron asks him, “What’s a faggot?” Juan’s response that it is “a word used to make gay people feel bad,” seems to resonate on Chiron’s face.

Their relationship continues to grow but sadly, after Chiron has learned to trust him, he finds out that his mother Paula takes drugs and that Juan is her supplier and he disappears from the boy’s life. In the second section, Chiron, now played by Ashton Sanders, is a high school student who confronts his sexuality in a sensitively handled scene in which he and his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) sit beside each other on a beach as the deeper aspect of their relationship is revealed. Unfortunately, it is only shortly afterwards that this friendship is betrayed at the instigation of a conscienceless bully. In the final section, however, It is Chiron (Trevante Roades) and Kevin’s (André Holland) renewal of their connection after ten years that allows us to get beyond the now burly, muscular Chiron’s macho posturing and find an entrance into the heart of both characters.

In the scene which partially takes place in the coffee shop where Kevin works as a cook, Chiron, who runs a drug ring in Atlanta tries to hide behind his masculinity but his act is betrayed by the revealing softness of his gaze. Though the film’s focus is on the life of one black individual, it is not a character study (its main character has few defining characteristics other than sullenness and repressed emotion). Neither is it a film of social protest, a gay love story, or a film with a political message, though it contains elements of each.

Moonlight transcends race, gender, and sexuality to become a universal statement, a tone poem that resensitizes us to a renewed understanding that we are people of compassion and empathy, elements that are in danger of becoming obsolete in a culture that values selfishness and greed. Author Charles Eisenstein said, “Dehumanizing narratives are never the truth. The truth can only be sourced from the sincere question, "What is it like to be you?" That is called compassion, and it invites skills of listening, dialog, and communicating without violence or judgment.” This is the kind of inspiration that Moonlight provides and what is desperately needed today.


Howard Schumann

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