A few months ago, as the “Oscar season” of quality films vying for awards hit theaters at the end of the year, I saw a few brief tweets praising the film Moonlight. Among those was one praising the film for ‘giving a voice to queer people of color.” From that description I knew the film would be discussed this awards season. Given the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite last year and the racially charged identity politics of 2016, it seemed logical that a film like Moonlight would get some attention. Moonlight did receive the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) as well as many other awards for its cast and its writer/director Barry Jenkins. However, there is a lot of empty praise that focuses on the issues of race and sexuality more-so than the movie. In fact, many reviews I saw told nothing about the film’s story or style and just focused on how important it was to tell the story of a gay black man. The question remains; is Moonlight a good movie? Is Moonlight deserving of awards this season?
Spoiler alert, as I’m going to briefly go over the film’s entire story.
Moonlight is told in three parts, each covering a small portion in the life of its protagonist Chiron (who also goes by the nicknames “Little” and “Black” at different times). As a child, Chiron is a frequent victim of bullying. Not wanting to return back to his drug-addicted mother in the housing project, he ends up bonding with an older man named Juan. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa open their home up to Chiron and do their best to be positive role models to the child. Unfortunately, Chiron discovers that Juan is not only a drug dealer but the very same one that supplies his mother with crack, so their relationship ends.
As a teenager, Chiron’s life is no better. He’s still a constant target for the bullies in high school, and his mother’s crack addiction has only gotten worse. His mother solicits herself for drugs and steals money from her son, becoming far more emotionally abusive. The few positive moments in Chiron’s life are when he spends time with Teresa, or when he hangs out with his friend Kevin. One evening, Chiron and Kevin share a highly charged sexual moment. However, Kevin ends up partaking in a hazing rituals with the bullies and has to beat-up Chiron at school. Unwilling to give up the identity of his assailants to the school counselor, Chiron returns the next day and beats one of them down with a chair – resulting in his arrest.
As an adult, Chiron has moved to Georgia where he is a drug dealer. His mother now lives in a drug treatment facility and shows remorse for how bad she treated her son while alive. Chiron receives a phone call from Kevin, whom he’s not talked to since his arrest in high school. Chiron drives to Miami and visits with Kevin who is happy with the way his life turned out. Chiron finally admits that he thinks about Kevin and that night they spent on the beach, confessing that he has never had an intimate moment, with anyone, since that night. They reconcile and Chiron cries in Kevin’s arms.
That’s the story.
Moonlight is very straight-forward with its subject matter without proselytizing. The characters all face great economic disadvantages, but the movie doesn’t focus on that. There are countless movies from Boyz N the Hood on that deal with the underprivileged lives of urban minorities. What makes Moonlight unique, however, is its refusal to address those issues- their lives are presented matter-of-factly without any comment. Unlike other films that deal with poverty and urban life, it doesn’t present its characters with hope; these people understand the reality of their life and cope with it. I applaud the fact that Moonlight is not just another movie about a basically good kid trying to escape the crushing life of the ghetto and ending in tragedy. Moonlight is a glance into their daily lives which, while depressing, only offers insight, not solution.
The most telling difference between Moonlight and other films addressing urban life is the remarkable soundtrack. Moonlight uses classical music throughout; orchestral music by composer Nicholas Britell that rather sounds like Bach or Chopin. There are a few instances where a contemporary hip-hop song plays from a character’s radio and a scene that makes very fine use of “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis. Unlike other films about life in urban poverty, Moonlight is not about its soundtrack. Rather than being a movie about life in those areas, highlighting all the people and music, Moonlight is just about Chiron. It is character-driven, not theme-driven.
Chiron’s sexuality (or lack thereof) is a key idea of the film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about a gay black man in the inner-city. They do exist, and I’ve met some, but they’ve never made it into cinema. I wouldn’t exactly say that Chiron is gay though, I think he’s a man who’s still trying to figure out his own identity. There are a different set of social mores in urban poverty that make it incredibly harder for one to develop an identity. Sure, in white America there is plenty of opportunity for people to explore their identity and pursue a lifestyle of their choosing; something that is not available in economically blighted areas. Moonlight shows an urban culture that is very focused on young black men going along with a certain set of masculine ideals instead of their own identity. If you want an example of this in the real world, simply look at the two types of music. Urban hip-hop frequently utilizes themes of violence and sex, while “white” popular music is more about romance and self-actualization. Moonlight uniquely shows that the masculine culture of urban life has robbed people of their identity, has taken from them the chance to develop any identity other than what is prescribed for them through the rough life of urban poverty. Chiron isn’t gay; as Juan tells him earlier in the film, “you might be, but you’ll have to figure that out later.” Chiron is never afforded that opportunity to figure it out later- he simply has to go along with what that society expects him to be instead of exploring who he wants to be.
Moonlight is a fascinating character piece that really explores issues of identity in parts of America we don’t frequently get to see or discuss. Unlike many other movies that tackle the issues of race and class in urban settings, Moonlight only sticks to the life of one person and their inability to develop an identity. When one takes films like Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, or any other film dealing with black life in the inner-city, the viewer is presented with a character that has an identity already; they have hopes and dreams and the film deals with their desire to fulfill those. Moonlight presents a very different look by showing us a person that does not have an identity, by showing that inner-city life deprives an individual even the opportunity to develop homes and dreams. With the reality presented in Moonlight, it makes many previous films in the same setting seem like a fantasy. The cliché narrative of “young kid hopes to rise out of the ghetto” is shown for the scam it is by presenting the fact that “hope” simply doesn’t exist.
The question remains, is Moonlight a quality Oscar contender? Most definitely. It is a very well-crafted film that does advance the art of cinema. It provides a new, and better look into the lives of others. The performances throughout are astounding. I was especially taken with actress Naomie Harris who portrays the desperation of crack-addict mother without being cliché. From the early acclaim of the film, focusing solely on its issues of race and sexuality and little else, I feared that it would be pretentious – that it would be another movie that was all message and no substance. Moonlight actually is all substance, with a non-specific message about the nature of identity. It’s critical success, the awards it’s received already, and it’s potential for more are not simply people playing racial politics—Moonlight is a movie that earns its praise. There are two other films this year dealing with race that have gotten plenty of attention: Fences, about a working-class black family in the 1950’s, and Hidden Figures, about a team of black women working for NASA in the 1960’s. If “white” Hollywood wanted to highlight issues of race, there is no shortage of topical films this year to choose from. While I haven’t seen the other two films yet, I support Moonlight because it doesn’t present race in a historical context, nor does it struggle to pull heartstrings to provide a message. Moonlight humbly presents the life of an individual, saying “yeah, this is what life is like,” and asks the viewer to take it or leave it. Moonlight’s greatest strength is its humility, which is sadly often overlooked in a Hollywood that favors boldness and security.