Though the film, Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins, has come out (October 21) only in select theaters nationwide, it has reached wide acclaim.
The film elucidates on various conversations of the depiction of African Americans, African American masculinity, and gay men in film. A young man named, Chiron, grows up in Miami, during its time of “War on Drugs.” And he deals with the tribulations of his unusual family. His maturation is depicted during three integral chapters of his life: a little boy, a teenager, and a twenty-something year old man, as he faces overwhelming emotions derived from realizations of his own sexuality. The film is loosely an autobiography, based on the writing of playwright, Tarell McCraney, in his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
McCraney’s childhood was framed by many challenges and discoveries, as he grew into a man. In an interview with TIFF magazine, he explains his humble beginnings as a boy in the slums learning how to ride a bike. He says, “[he] had just kicked off the training wheels,” and he tried to ride the bike, but repeatedly lost balance and fell. This moment, in his life, takes place on 62nd and 63rd street, which is also the first scene or first filming site of Moonlight. Afterwards, a drug dealer came by and proceeded to teach him how to correctly ride a bike. And he continues to tell this story of how a drug dealer, a seemingly bad person in society, treated him like his own; how he has been given “these snatches or a patchwork of generosity from unlikely people in some- ungenerous circumstances.”
Furthermore, not only does the film have truths that give it a certain gravity, but the cast has many actress and actor heavyweights like Naomi Harris (Spectre), Mahershala Ali (House of Cards), Janelle Monáe (singer and songwriter), André Holland (American Horror Story) and up-and-comers including former University of Texas track-athlete (turned actor) Trevante Rhodes, playing the older Chiron, Ashton Sanders (Straight Outta Compton) playing Chiron in his adolescence, and Alex R. Hibbert playing Chiron as a young boy.
The cast portrays the characters on a visceral level. Even though they practiced together for weeks and created realistic relationships between Chiron’s mother, Paula, (played by Harris) and himself, and Chiron and the drug-dealer turned- pseudo-father Juan (played by Ali) their mannerisms and motions demonstrate how attuned they were to their characters. During one scene between Harris, Ali, and Hibbert, the audience witnesses how the emotions play out when a mother finds out her son has been brought home by a drug dealer. Harris plays the protective mother to a T, as frustration, fear, anger, and then shame play out on her face. Once she realizes that, she fails in her role as a mother and tries to internalize or really squash this painful revelation.
In the meantime, Ali’s and Hibbert’s acting take a certain light of their own when Ali’s character’s forced yet easygoing persona crumbles. His tight smile falls, as Harris’s character disregards his good deed and looks on at him with distrust and confusion. And he slowly looks down discouraged; then he looks up at her, questioning. But he walks away. All the while, Hibbert’s character silently stands there shoulders dropped, staring into the cement, full of humiliation.This moment encapsulates the emotions and the tangents of those feelings shown throughout the entire film: fear, hostility, love, fierceness, and so much shame. The shame of realizing you were wrong, the aggravation to that shame of recognizing you were wrong about yourself, and the great question of what do you do when you discover who you are in uncertain circumstances?
Credit to A24
And beneath these great performances, the story silently challenges the industry. Watching the film, you cannot forget that it is composed of an all-black cast. And you cannot forget how surprised and curious you feel seeing this. Though the epicenter of this film is about a man coming to accept who he is, it is really about a black man playing out the facets of what it means to be gay in a non-typical fashion. And — in these peculiar feelings caused by seeing such a rare narrative — the truth of the industry arises. The lack of films with all-black cast, black actors and actresses in roles with meaning, beyond stereotypes, like the slave, the loud-mouth, the fighter, and all the many personalities that encompass the ongoing black trope.
Still, Moonlight is a revelation for all audiences. For black audiences the film tells them that they are beyond the times of their detrimental typecast and instead in an era where they can be more than labels and their associations. And Moonlight further proves itself to shed an important light on how critical it is for a black man to play a gay man in such a way as this.
There are numerous Kurt Hummel’s, or effeminate, white gay characters. And that is not to say that it is bad, but it becomes detrimental when there is only one type of narrative being told. But when there are many differing types of gay characters present in the film industry, like this storyline of the effeminate, white gay man, it adds to the diversity and substance of LGBTQ+ films. Likewise, gay black men and black men, in general, witnessing another portrayal of ‘manliness’ and ‘masculinity’ is pivotal in the consciousness of this race, where films majorly portrays them as violent, aggressive, and hyper-sexual figures. This continuous trope has been woven and continues to weave itself into the black-men’s view of what it means to be a true man, especially a black man.
Yet, Moonlight’s take on gay men, masculinity, and specifically black men makes it so that these concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but really different facets of a person. Chiron, as a gay black man, grows up in a predominantly African American city, as he comes to fall in love with another man. Each characteristic of being black and being gay never detract from the other. He shows his strength, as he continues to endure his dysfunctional family, while being a gay man.
With so much acclaim and praise for Moonlight, it is in talks for an Oscar Best Picture; Best Director, Barry Jenkins; Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali; Best Supporting Actress, Naomie Harris, and many more. Presently, the film has garnered Best Ensemble Award from Gotham Awards, and U.S. Cinema Award at Mill Valley Film Festival.
By Dominique Spencer