The greatest impending social fear within joining a group, community or society is the very expectation that comes with it and the daunting fear of having a true identity that is a contradiction to the status quo. Nature seeks to isolate and destroy the anomaly, forcing individuals who are different within any social enclave to augment their identity to camouflage themselves and to survive the day-to-day inner-workings of the imposed expectations. Many black Americans feel this way within American society, and yet for many gay black Americans, they feel even more cast aside.
Rejected by a white society searching for homogeneity, and debased by a poverty-stricken black social enclave demanding masculinity and cultural conformity, the identity of a gay black male is seemingly constricted to victimization. Within the media, the representation of gay black males is often constrained to the humorous stereotype, or the shamefully self-serving closeted cheater. The expectations, labels and ideas placed upon black people and furthermore black gay males is so layered and multi-faceted with demeaning limitations that it’s a suffocating experience of which there seems to be no true escape. This is ultimately why filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film Moonlight is so liberating.
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Barry Jenkins’ feature film Moonlight follows Chiron, a young African-American male living in Miami, Florida (and later Atlanta, Georgia) during the height of the war on drugs in Reagan’s America. Using a three chapter bipartite structure, the film explores Chiron at three important periods in his young life and marking each chapter with a transition point with Chiron evolving from a puny, persecuted little boy into a sheepish, repressed teenager and finally into a hardened drug dealer.
The first noticeable aspect of Moonlight is the craft by which it is made. From the swirling camera shifts to the distinctive color grade, James Laxton’s cinematography emphasizes movement as much as it does color. Nicholas Britell’s score, while minimalist, creates character motifs that are revisited throughout the film’s progression. Such a craft is more reminiscent of Harmony Korine or Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic predilections, and yet is used with more significance to its own haunting beauty than anything either filmmaker has attempted. Creating a unique presentation for the film, Barry Jenkins poses the possibility for black voices and expression in cinema that is both introspective and yet forward-thinking. In doing so, Moonlight eschews the cinema of pity-partying, proselytizing and enraged polemics on issues of race in favor of being as much of an affirmation of black audiences as it is a challenge to them.
The style of the film largely underscores its substance on a number of levels. While obviously a gay-related story, Moonlight operates on far too many levels to be pigeonholed to that label or cinematic subgenre in the way Pariah could be. Moonlight first encapsulates the experience of black poverty by documenting the impacted lives of those who suffered from drug abuse, the fallout of the drug trade and the decades of harsh draconian lawmaking to “prevent” it. The vicious cycles are portrayed here with exacting clarity. Similar to Justin Tipping’s 2016 drama film Kicks, Moonlight examines the culture of masculinity as manifested among black men. Its examination isn’t biting, yet shows the many cracks within its fabric. Jenkins, in adapting McCraney’s voice, also frames the gay experience as experienced by black men in a tasteful manner far removed from tawdry sexual objectification and explanation-giving psychoanalysis. All of these social frames are depicted by the contrast of contradiction between social expectation and individualistic identity. Within those contradictions is the immense detail of humanity often missing from filmmaking and storytelling on similar subjects.
These said contradictions are found throughout Chiron’s relationships. First seen attempting to escape the bullying of his peers, he takes solace in the company of Juan (portrayed by an affecting Mashershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (played beautifully by a motherly Janelle Monáe). Juan, a drug dealer with a heart, presents the contradiction of being the most empathetic to Chiron and sympathetic in his own right despite his world-destroying profession. This contradiction comes full circle with the introduction of Chiron’s mother (excellently portrayed by Naomie Harris) who is a verbally abusive and neglectful crack-cocaine addict enabled by Juan’s drug dealing. Completing the full circle of the crux of Chiron’s development is Kevin, a childhood friend and boasting sexual provocateur with whom Chiron’s limited expression of sexuality grows.
Within the embodiment of these characters, Jenkins infuses a full-fledged humanity often denied to such characters who would only be judged by the end result of their lives. Instead, the audience is shown life in a far more comprehensive manner and even in the absence of certain characters as well as the full arc of their stories, so much is still understood just by simple intuition, words and gestures. Being shown these complex experiences, Moonlight establishes that a person’s sum total is made up of difficult, sometimes harsh moving parts complete with trauma, unfortunate circumstance and poor decision-making, all of which gets lost in the heat of judgment.
In using style, substance and the complexity of more realistic characterizations, Moonlight provides a very rare experience in watching a film about African-Americans. Very rarely can I point to faces in cinema and utter, “I’ve seen that person before.” Seldom can I say, “I experienced that exact situation” with the ability to pinpoint the exact feelings I felt during that situation not to mention being able to feel them all over again in the vessel of Chiron. The encapsulated experience of black America in cinema can feel so specific to harsh situations that filmmakers are rarely able to fully transport the audience into the experience. Barry Jenkins in the most stunning fashion presents Chiron’s experience in a way that it feels like my own experience, making every word, gesture and event analogous to my own. In doing so, Moonlight runs the possibility of making us all see people beyond the surfaces that they present in order to survive in a harsh environment rife with impossible expectations.
Ultimately, Moonlight is a unique experience and cinematic event that ought be remembered, emulated and expanded upon. It poses ideas, challenges and questions without pushing the answers. It seeks not to create rage against the other, but introspection of the self as a way of creating new starting points. And most poignantly, it unabashedly shows the beauty of blackness, and all without having to denigrate anyone with a lighter shade. It’s unfortunate that black cinema did not reach this point earlier, but if anyone is listening or watching, it’s the greatest starting point for an entirely new and badly needed frontier.