Impressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.
In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.
In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.
Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.
As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.
There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.
I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.