Moonlight is a film that made me want to revive this blog,which has been collecting cobwebs for nearly half a decade so it seems. For one thing,it was directed by Barry Jenkins. He’s a relatively new black director known for the 2008 Bay Area themed film Medicine For Melancholy, which I have yet to see but was recommended to me by my good friend (and Bay Area resident) Henrique Hopkins. Of course the major points for me wishing to see Moonlight wasn’t it winning the Academy Award for best picture this year. But rather for increasing knowledge of the films content.
For one,there’s Jenkins making a film set in his native Miami,Florida roughly during my own lifetime. Selfish as that may sound,there are many compelling ideas that could come from that late 80’s to mid 2000’s arc of time. There was also the presence of singer /songwriter/musician/actress Janelle Monae- a major player in the world of Afro Futurism in the performing arts today. Then came the subject matter: an African American child coming to terms with his homosexuality in the hood. Its a premise that could’ve gone either way in quality. What I did see inspired me to talk about it.
The story follows a Miami native named Chiron-presented in three acts. One act dealing with his childhood,one with his adolescence and the final with his rising adulthood. He is the child of mother whose become a junkie and prostitute . Throughout his school life, he is understood to be gay and bullied because of it. He finds refuge in the home of Cuban drug dealer Juan,who along with his girlfriend Teresa (portrayed by Monae) attempt to give the young boy a sense of racial pride.
As he becomes a teenager,he has his first sexual experience with a school friend named Kevin. He is than pressured by Chiron’s longtime bully Terrell into hazing his friend for his sexuality. When the stress of the somewhat taciturn Chiron’s life gets to him, he assaults Terrell in class and is arrested. As a grown adult,Chiron is trying to overcome his own history of drug dealing following time in prison. He is contacted by Kevin,who has since become a chef. The two reunite. And end up discussing their past and trying to resolve the unexplored relationship they never had.
Of course,there is going to be the subjective matter of personal opinion on this movie. And I am no exception to that subjectivity. Even though the setting in this film was quite different than my own, the internal struggles of a young man of (in my case some) African American descent dealing with his sexual orientation was a compelling one. The questions I ask myself in writing this are…did Moonlight deal with this subject matter in a well rounded enough manner? And further more,did the characters and their situations endear themselves to the same purpose?
This is after all the first film I’ve seen with an all black cast to directly deal with LGBT issues. The film is beautifully acted and directed by Jenkins. Its a fairly quiet film that lingers on sometimes impressionistic visuals to make its point-as opposed to heavy dialog.Janelle Monae’s Teresa is actually one of the more likable and sympathetic characters in the film. Chiron is depicted by three separate actors as a brooding, somewhat damaged human being-someone never able to articulate his feelings. The issue of betrayal and instability in his life seems to be a factor in this.
As a study of the Chiron character and his dilemma as an LGBT African American in a vice riddled Miami,its likely a fairly accurate portrayal. It is also the source of the issues I personally had with the movie. For decades now, almost every movie I’ve seen focused on internal African American social issues ignore families who do well. Generally, it places the lead characters in a hard ghetto environment where the only way to evolve is to survive in the best manner possible. And Moonlight is no exception to that rule. In that area,it actually missed a golden opportunity to tell another angle to this kind of story.
In this day and age of white supremacy having a leg up in American politics,and its accompanying racism and homophobia again having to be fought against by an often more humane masses of American citizens, Barry Jenkins had the opportunity to make a a strong dialog based movie about a functional African American family with an LGBT child or children-still dealing with similar issues as Chiron did in public life. Instead,it used the ghetto environment as something of a visual canvas to tell a story that was more about visual art than character development.
Chiron himself is sympathetic character,who many could empathize with. Naomie Harris’s Paula,Chiron’s mother,is an utterly unlikeable character. She is consistently selfish and abusive to her already crumbling son. She only cleans up her act when Chiron becomes an adult-even going as far as asking his forgiveness for her wanton neglect. Even characters such as Kevin and Mahershala Ali’s Juan,who mentors young Chiron, are all effected by either the drug dealing/using and bullying that is slowly crumbling Chiron’s life into pieces.
In the end, Moonlight gave a lot but could’ve given so much more. The cliche of “black social drama set amidst crime and poverty” sapped much of the energy out of the story line for me. It really required more scripted dialog,and less visually operatic melodrama. That being said,for a movie that’s probably the first of its kind, Moonlight is a significant beginning. The question is will black themed LGBT cinema evolve, or will it keep its characters forever ghettoized.? Its a question worth asking. And finally answering when this sub-genre of African American cinema finally realizes itself.