USA (110 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Barry Jenkins Official site
There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ‘cause we lost the money. I mean for him; what he’s been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most; when they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning — because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so. When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.
—Mama to Beneatha, Act III, Lorraine Hansberry A Raisin in the Sun, 1959
A film that gets into the depths of things most of us simply don’t understand, that lives up to the critical hype by being a smaller, more poetic film that expresses a lyrical grace, featuring some amazing performances. It’s hard enough being black in America, a completely incomprehensible experience for most whites, but being black and gay is an altogether different island of extreme cultural isolation. When you think of gay black artists, perhaps writers James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry come to mind, a short list with the latter two remaining ambiguously closeted throughout their entire lives. Being black and gay was an incendiary subject in the 60’s during the formation of the Black Panther Party in America, where Panther Eldridge Cleaver belittled and derided the homosexuality of Baldwin in homophobic terms in his seminal book Soul On Ice (1968), while earlier Baldwin and black author Richard Wright had their own personal disputes and disagreements, where largely what they were discussing was the subject of black masculinity. A similar cultural divide erupted with the success of Ntozake Shange’s mid 70’s theater piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, as the play was publicly scorned and repudiated by black men in community forums, disgusted by the presence of lesbian characters. In Chicago, noted journalist, independent radio commentator, and black activist Lu Palmer was the voice of the black community in the 70’s and 80’s, with his incendiary radio commentary known as “Lu’s Notebook,” helping to galvanize the political forces of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor in 1983. But in the early 70’s he also originated “Lu’s Bookshelf,” organizing monthly community forums to discuss books critically relevant to black people, including the controversial Ntozake Shange, but the visibly present outrage expressed by the black community discussing her work was a repudiation of gays and lesbians in their midst. The stark tone of derision was unmistakable. Black masculinity has taken on a public persona through athletic success, as seen in Hoop Dreams (1994), where sports has been the gateway out of poor inner city neighborhoods, so for many Americans, watching football or basketball on television often reflects the extent of their knowledge on what constitutes being black in America, as athletes are asked their opinions on a myriad of issues. These athletes spend their lives with microphones being stuck in their faces wherever they go. But rarely, rarely, if ever, are any of them outwardly gay. Let’s see a show of hands for anyone that can name a single black athlete currently playing professional baseball, football, or basketball in America today who is admittedly gay. A few have announced in college or on their way out of the leagues, but America is simply not yet ready to accept gay black athletes, as it contradicts our perception of what it is to be a black man. While there is a recurring gay black character named Omar on the television series The Wire (2002 – 2008), but even in independent American cinema, there is a surprising absence of gay black protagonists, which makes this something of a breakthrough film. James Baldwin, from The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, an essay directed at author Norman Mailer four years after he wrote The White Negro (Fall 1957) | Dissent Magazine, from Esquire magazine, May 1961:
I think that I know something about the American masculinity which most of the men in my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in a way that I have been. It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be kind of a walking phallic symbol; which means that one pays, in personality, for the sexual insecurity of others.
Arguably the best film on what it means to be black in America remains Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), a startlingly candid expression that is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago, though ironically it was directed by a white man. Eight years after the release of his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), one of the best date movies ever, this is Barry Jenkins’ (who is not gay) adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, with McCraney a black, openly gay playwright, a 2013 MacArthur Grant winner, where the film blends the artistry of these two black men with similar backgrounds who grew up near one another in the Liberty City Projects in Miami, the same locale used for the film. A black and gay response to humanist epics like Terrence Malick’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life and Richard Linklater’s 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood, films that make growing up as white adolescent boys in America a universal experience, this is another intensely personal film shown in three parts, at ages 9, 16, and 26, each titled after the same character’s name, and played by three different actors, where the brilliance of the film is personified by the collective power of the overall performances. Little (Alex Hibbert), a derogatory nickname other students call him, a bewildered, persistently picked-on kid that others bully and routinely gang up on, grown sullen and silent already, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), his name given at birth, seen slinking around the corners of the high school and housing projects, always seen looking over his shoulder, and Black (Trevante Rhodes), a drug pusher called by a nickname, now obsessively muscular and pumped up, physically defined by his masculine image. Opening in the 80’s at the height of the crack epidemic, the film opens to the music of Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” Moonlight | Music of Moonlight | Official Featurette HD | A24 YouTube (2:32), where we’re curiously introduced to someone other than the main character, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Cuban-born crack dealer who has a major impact on the outcome of the film, a father figure and protector, a guy running a criminal enterprise, yet shows tenderness and understanding in the way he handles a shy young kid he accidentally stumbles upon. Bringing him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), as the shell-shocked kid refuses to talk, they treat him like a “Little Man,” feed him and let him spend the night before he opens up the next morning and identifies where he lives. Respectfully returning him home the next day, his harried single-mom (Naomie Harris, the only one in all three sections) jerks him inside for a tongue-lashing, Moonlight | Back Home | Official Clip HD | A24 YouTube (1:12). Juan’s home becomes a safe refuge for this young child, returning again and again to get away from his male attackers, where Juan patiently teaches him how to swim, yet at the same time what Juan sells on the street is ruining his mother’s life, all but abandoning him to the wolves. In one of the more heartbreaking scenes of the film, he opens up and asks Juan what a “faggot” is? It’s a rare film that provides an honest answer, but this gut-wrenching question sets the tone for just how real and complex this film is willing to get. The film challenges the viewer’s perception of stereotypes and broadens the view of characters that are usually perceived as one-dimensional, like crack-addicted mothers or drug dealers, where we tend to lump them into a negative category, while in this film they express various degrees of love and tenderness, showing what they’re capable of, but instead have simply fallen through the cracks.
Luminously photographed by cinematographer James Laxton, who filmed his earlier film as well, accentuating color saturation in chosen scenes, adding a dreamlike, seductive quality to what is otherwise a difficult film, along with a pensive and melancholic musical score by Nicholas Britell that is illuminating and stunningly intimate, available on Spotify, Moonlight (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Nicholas Britell - Spotify, where “Little’s Theme” and “The Middle of the World” are used most extensively. When first introduced to Juan on the corner, the camera does a dizzying 360-degree turn around him, where the swirling effect disorients the viewer from what we are about to experience, shaking us out of any sense of complacency, offering a shift in perspective, requiring that we enter the film with a spirit of openness. As a teenager in high school, Chiron is openly ridiculed by other males in class, particularly Terrel (Patrick Decile), who hounds and intimidates him incessantly, constantly getting in his face and daring him to do something about it, remaining close friends with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a good-natured friend since childhood, though boys at this age tend to openly brag about their sexual exploits, and Kevin is as guilty as anyone else. His graphic depictions work their way into Chiron’s dreams, where he passively observes Kevin having rough sex with a girl. At the same time, his mother is a full-fledged crack addict, kicking him out of the house to solicit various men, while growing increasingly hostile about demanding whatever money Chiron receives from Teresa (Juan is now deceased), as this remains his home away from home. Not having anywhere else to go, he wanders down by the beach one night and runs into Kevin, who has a huge joint to smoke. After an awkward discussion, they eventually kiss while Kevin passionately fondles Chiron, for whom this is clearly the first time. In school the next day there is no lingering afterglow, instead Kevin is pressured by Terrel to play a hazing ritual of punching someone of Terrel’s choice. It turns out to be Chiron, who refuses to stay down, but continues to get back up for more blows. Terrel eventually pushes Kevin away where he and a couple others kick and stomp on Chiron to finish the job before a teacher intervenes, refusing to cooperate with a school social worker afterwards, despite her encouragement to file a police report and put an end to this harassment, as he feels it will accomplish nothing. It’s interesting to compare this hazing ritual with the more innocent paddling ritual in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), happening at about the same time, but the cultural deviations between black and white, straight and gay, couldn’t be more markedly different. The next day in class, Chiron walks into class, picks up a chair, and smashes it over Terrel’s head several times, where he’s lead out of the school premises in handcuffs and placed in a police van, glaring straight at a mystified Kevin who watches in disbelief.
We are a bit surprised to see the transformation of a skinny high school kid to this buffed, athletic physique, but he spent time in juvenile detention in Atlanta where there’s little else to do, and the man is a workout fiend, waking up early in the morning just to get his repeated repetitions in before falling back into bed. Now living somewhere outside Atlanta, he’s the spitting image of Juan, running drugs on the street, diamond studs in his ears, even driving the same car, where he’s transformed himself into an imposing figure, using the nickname “Black” that was affectionately given to him by Kevin as a teenager. Out of the blue, he receives a call from Kevin, who he hasn’t seen or heard from since high school days, who learned to become a cook and now runs a diner in Miami, inviting him to come by, apologizing for what happened when they last saw each other (words Chiron takes to heart), offering to cook something for him, as he heard a song on the jukebox that reminded him of Chiron. His mother’s in a nearby rehab center, where she may finally be getting her life back together. The vitriol she displayed in earlier segments are scarred in Chiron’s memory, where a repeating motif comes back to haunt him, where she’s standing just outside a doorway in their home, exaggerated by a heightened neon-pink color scheme, shot in slow motion, accentuated by swirling orchestral violins, where she’s screaming something at Chiron, though the words are never heard. The meaning, however, is unforgettable, as the rage is always present, recurring in his dreams in the form of a nightmare. He visits her on the grounds of the rehab center, and is about to abruptly leave, but she grabs his arm and suddenly displays an intent vulnerability, taking him completely by surprise, as she’s suddenly a sympathetic and compassionate figure seen in a new light. As we see him on the road, driving his car, we hear a familiar refrain, Caetano Veloso Cucurrucucu Paloma Hable Con Ella - YouTube (3:44), a hauntingly dramatic yet utterly sublime song used so effectively in Almodóvar’s TALK TO HER (2002), a reminder of doomed love and an overt reference to the world’s most acclaimed gay film director, yet here we see a long stretch of the highway, with images of black children at play wading into the surf. The road leads Chiron to a diner in Miami where he finds Kevin (André Holland), where suddenly he’s that same tentative figure seen earlier, shy, inarticulate, yet tragically wounded, hiding beneath the layers of muscles where he’s still the same scared kid underneath. Their moments together move slowly, patiently, unsure of themselves, with plenty of unfilled space between them, a complex portrait of longing and sorrow, where we can see them thinking, imagining, yet their eyes speak volumes. Asked about the jukebox song, Kevin plays the 60’s Barbara Lewis classic, Barbara Lewis -- Hello Stranger - YouTube (2:40), which seems to have been written just for this moment. Both actors elevate the material with understated, unspoken messages, with what’s hidden underneath, the years of regret and marginalization, where there’s simply an extraordinary recognition of what these two guys have been through in their lives, where now, perhaps finally, no further obstacles stand in their way. It’s a powerful yet fragile moment, filled with lyricism and tender grace. For all the myriad of walls we construct to protect ourselves from the brutal realities, the strength of the film comes from the quiet acceptance of our own buried truths, where the openness of the characters reflect a director who couldn’t be more empathetic.
Moonlight Conversation at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival with the director and five actors on the lawn moderated by film scholar Annette Insdorf, http://telluridefilmfestival.org/show/showroom (50:05).