The Films of 2016: Moonlight

The praise for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has been so effusive that to try to articulate new ways of talking about how great it is feels almost impossible.  Yet the film is so singularly great that trying not to gush about it is even more difficult to do.  So forgive me while I gush.  Moonlight feels like the kind of great film that we (cinephiles, Americans, LGBTQ people and their allies, people of color and their allies) have been hungry for without even realizing it.  The story of a young black man growing up in Miami in the early 2000s and struggling to come to terms with his emergent homosexuality, its subject matter is pressing and topical. Moonlight is so much more than “relevant,” though: it’s a dream-film, poetic and bold and haunting, drenched in longing and pain, soaked in the neon and fluorescence of nighttime, set to the steady pounding of the surf.  And however we may interpret its politics, they’re rooted in the utterly compelling human drama of its main character, who goes by three different names at three different phases of his life.  (The film is structured as a triptych: childhood, adolescence, adulthood.)  The story that Jenkins and his actors are telling is in some ways as old as time, insofar as it’s about the struggle to understand ourselves and determine the course of our lives.  It’s also a story that’s specific to the experience of gay people of color like its main character, and Jenkins’ approach in telling that story feels utterly new, scary, unpredictable, and intoxicating. 

When the film opens our main character is a boy of about eight, guarded and frightened (as much of himself as of other people), known as Little.  When we first see him he’s hiding from bullies who have chased him into an empty crack house.  It’s there that he’s discovered by the local drug lord, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his surrogate father—even as the latter continues, not without some guilt, to provide the crack that is wrecking Little’s mother (Naomie Harris).  But it’s Juan who is the first person to instill in Little a sense of self.  The two have a conversation around Juan’s dinner table that is as profoundly moving in its quietness and simplicity as any other scene in a movie this year. 

Then, suddenly, Little has sprung up into a tall, rangy teenager who goes by his given name, Chiron, and whose sexual attraction to other boys is catalyzed by his relationship with a playfully flirtatious high school friend, Kevin.  But by the time we get to the final section of the film Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) has suppressed any expression of his identity as a gay man.  A jacked-up gang-banger with a grill, he has become hard—a defense mechanism developed over a lifetime of having been targeted and abused for being seen as “soft.”  This languidly paced final section, in which he reunites with Kevin after a ten-year absence, has the feel of a short play (in fact Jenkins’ screenplay is based on short pieces of fiction and drama by the writer Tarell McCraney).  It progresses as naturally and elegantly as the unfurling of a flower. 

The film ends somewhat abruptly and ambiguously, but it gestures toward hope, affirmation, and possibility.  It’s the rarest kind of ending, one that conveys reparation without stooping to contrivances or a phony plot device or a cheap musical cue.  It aspires to convey the depth of emotion triggered by the sound of lapping waves on the sand (a recurring motif in the film)—a feeling beyond mere happiness; something like peace, tempered by the memory of trauma and the fear of loss.  It’s the same feeling immortalized by Matthew Arnold in his prayer to the faith of lovers, “Dover Beach”:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.        

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