Author’s Note: This review was previously published on MonkeyGooseMag on October 24, 2016.
About half an hour into Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, 10-year-old Chiron is sitting with Juan, the man who sells crack to Chiron’s mother, at Juan’s kitchen table. He timidly asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?”
Juan and the audience both know where this question is coming from, and so he chooses his answer carefully, explaining to the child that it’s a word people say to make gay people feel bad. Chiron follows up with an equally-timid “Am I a faggot?”
It’s a truly devastating moment. It’s a moment where this young child, whose life is already very hard (black, poor, single mother addicted to crack, bullied at school), is learning that his life will be even harder. It’s a moment where this adult, who recently realized that the mother of this child he’s taken a liking to is one of his customers, is learning that his actions affect more than just himself, and he has a responsibility to other people that he was previously unaware of.
That’s the end of the first of three acts in Moonlight, which follows Chiron as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. It seems as good a place as any to give an idea of what kind of movie Moonlight is: one where every character – but Chiron in particular – has the deck stacked against them, and they’re just trying to get through it (“it” meaning…life). In particular, it’s about how the people around us try to dictate who we are – intentional or otherwise – and sometimes self-discovery is hindered or squashed entirely by the expectations other people have for us.
Earlier in the first act, Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him how to swim. Afterwards, he tells him of a time that an old woman told him he was blue because “In moonlight, black boys look blue” (which was the title of the play upon which the film is based). It’s a simple, forgettable anecdote, but Juan rails against the label, telling Chiron that other people are going to try to tell him who he is, tell him that he’s blue, but he is only what he chooses.
That may be true in theory, but it’s really hard to swallow in practice, as Chiron learns again and again and again throughout the course of the movie (/his life). Chiron’s life is difficult – unbearable at times – because other people make it so. And every time another person brightens his life in some way, it’s fleeting, and that same person is tearing him down and making him miserable a scene or two later.
Most people (at least on the internet) seem to agree that 2016 has really sucked: from beloved celebrities dying too soon, to the garbage-fire of an election that is mercifully almost finished, to the Cubs reaching the World Series (Go Cards, always). But despite a disappointing slate of big blockbusters this year, I think that 2016 has actually been a wonderful year for movies so far: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Zootopia, The Lobster, Everybody Wants Some!, Sing Street, The Nice Guys, Swiss Army Man, Don’t Think Twice, Hell or High Water, etc.
I just want to emphasize that in order to add due gravity to this statement: Moonlight is easily the best movie I’ve seen in 2016. Granted, Arrival is still two weeks away and La La Land is six, but still. The performances are perfect, the script is painfully compelling throughout, and Barry Jenkins’ direction is subtle and spectacular.
“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
I didn’t choose to be born white, I didn’t choose to be born straight, and I didn’t choose to be born to loving parents who were willing to work their fingers to the bone to give me a better life than they had. Similarly, Chiron didn’t choose to be born black, he didn’t choose to be born gay, and he didn’t choose to be born to a poor, crack-addict mother. This may be a trivial and obvious observation, but it’s something I couldn’t get out of my mind after seeing Moonlight. I also couldn’t get out of my mind how badly I wanted to give Chiron a hug throughout the movie; whenever I thought I couldn’t feel worse for this kid (/man), more things happened and I was proven wrong, and I just wanted to hug him even more and tell him everything’s going to be ok.
According to Roger Ebert, that is the exact purpose of movies: to show us other people and other things that we don’t know about and make us understand them, at least a little. And given how much “other people” (in the most generic sense) play such a pivotal role in Moonlight and Chiron’s life, it’s even more appropriate. I don’t spend much of my day actively thinking about poor, gay, black kids with crack-addict mothers, but during the two-hour runtime of Moonlight – and in the hours afterwards – my heart was breaking for Chiron (and even more so for the real people just like him). Or, as Ebert put it, the movie helped me “identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Yes, there’s a reason he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.
I’ve already written a fair amount about why representation matters and why we need more movies about characters outside of the realm of straight, white men, and whenever I see a movie like Moonlight, I’m further convinced of how essential these movies are. In a time when a lot of people are trying to divide us based on our differences, empathy and understanding are crucial to our survival. Chiron in particular is desperate for someone to understand him. Desperate. And I guarantee real people in the world feel that same desperation.
Barry Jenkins and Moonlight helped me understand, even if it was just a little. But I’ll take a little.