what it was like watching ‘moonlight’ as a queer black man (film review)

November 7, 2016

For the entire thirty-minute car ride to the movie theater, my best friend and I, who is also a Black queer man, couldn’t stop talking about how excited we were to finally see Moonlight. We knew only what we’d read about the film online and what we’d seen from trailers. We were filled with hope that we would see ourselves resembled on screen in some small way. We both expected to receive crumbs; when you are handed platefuls of crumbs, so often, you begin to expect it. What we got instead were not crumbs or even a plate with an unfulfilling slice of cake, rather an entirely filling piece of cake – the kind you return to for more.

In short, director Barry Jenkins’ coming-of- age story is about the life of Chiron, a young boy in Miami in the 1980’s, as he grows into and navigates the confines of manhood. The film is divided into three parts and Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) who walk (or run) us through the different phases of his life. Moonlight gives us an intense yet delicate look into the historic crack-epidemic from a perspective we have yet to experience it from: a young boy, Chiron, wrestling with navigating through a world of drugs, toxic masculinity, and his own sexuality while also dealing with the trauma of having a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris).

By Devyn Springer/OTR*, AFROPUNK contributor

We are introduced to Chiron in the beginning of the movie as he runs from a group of children taunting him, calling him “Little,” among other names. Chiron runs into an abandoned apartment complex filled with dirty needles and crack pipes on the floor and locks the door, hiding from the kids who remain outside shouting at him. This is where we see the powerful and insightful Juan, a drug-dealing character played gracefully by Mahershala Ali, who watched the boys chase Chiron into the building and when they leave, offer to take Chiron to grab some lunch.

In this moment, it feels like we aren’t just introduced to Juan and Chiron, but introduced to silence as well. A silence that not only sets the tone for the next few scenes, but foreshadows and looms in the air for the rest of the movie. It is silence that allows the audience to peek inside of the mind of Chiron scene after scene, tear after tear, through every emotion he goes through.

The silence feels both familiar and eerie for me, because it’s a silence that forced me to confront many of the silences in my own life due to toxic masculinity I had been avoiding. An example of this silence is a scene that takes place in the beginning of the movie where the audience sees Chiron’s mother shout at him but the sound is taken out, and the audience has to fish through our own words and emotion to create in our heads what she says to him.

This moment later becomes a nightmare for Chiron, now older and independent, and in several other moments throughout the film silence slips over the screen, often in more subtle ways. Silence that says a lot. Silence that says nothing. Silence that wants to say something but cannot bring itself to do so. Silence that is a larger symbolism for the silence Black men often endure because of the confines of masculinity. Silence that exists without explanation.

Silence is not the only symbolism Jenkins gives us; we see Chiron has an interesting relationship with water. In the beginning of the movie, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, and later in high school after Chiron is jumped we see him put his face in ice water, an act which he does again a decade later as an adult, and again water is highlighted when Kevin asks “well what do you drink?” and Chiron candidly replies “water.” Water is again present during the scene under the moonlight on the beach with Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland) where we see Chiron truly and wholly let his guard down, even if only for a few minutes, and enjoy the comfortability of being himself. It’s as if the water washes him, and brings him peace and calm in a world lacking of those things.

Every actor who portray both Chiron and Kevin are brilliant, but it might be their teenage selves (Ashton Sanders and Jharrell Jerome) that won me over. As we watched them survive high school, it felt at times too real and close to my own survival in high school. It felt too close to tears, and anger, that I experienced. There is a tense moment in which Chiron intentionally chooses silence instead of naming his bullies, and I think of all the moments when I too chose silence; when thousands of sensitive, bullied Black boys like myself choose silence.

I saw myself in Kevin, too, who plays as Chiron’s only friend (and enemy for a certain time). Kevin is someone so desperate to fit into the box of accepted and respectable masculinity, he would alter his own personality and hurt his friends to achieve that. Someone who, as the film shows, is likeable, funny, and interesting, but still feels the need to overcompensate painful projections of “manliness” to prove himself.

And this is part of the magic of Moonlight: it leaves little room to avoid reflection and introspection. Between the endearing performance of Teresa by Janelle Monae and the powerful, raw depth Naomie Harris gives us as his mother, we are left with nothing but ourselves and silence. I am left with the silence and water that leaves me questioning what it means to be Black, and what it means to be Black and queer, and what it means for an entire lifetime to be a Black and queer man.

The visuals in Moonlight are masterful, colorful wonders that elevate the mundane and familiar into art. Scenes like young Chiron sitting in the bathtub or Juan walking across the street in daylight humanize and highlight the intersections of Blackness and poverty, those that our community tends to push to the edges. As Myles E. Johnson said in a recent review, “the saving grace in Moonlight is that it is undeniably impeccable artistically. The performances are grand. James Laxton, Moonlight‘s cinematographer, is a poet with how he translates these scenes in ways that feel both vulnerable and painterly.” Truly, Moonlight feels like poetry at times in the way thought becomes a visual canvas and silence the medium in which it is displayed.

Moonlight is not perfect, and it is not complete, but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I appreciate the way it showed us a story that is not necessarily new to film, rather newly presented without the reenactment of trauma and tired tropes. A flaw I found in the film was that the presence of Black women could have been stronger, possibly added lines and background given to Teresa or the introduction of a high school student confidant who is a Black woman would have been a fix to this. Still, despite its few flaws, it is easily rendered a masterpiece in the story that it tells and how it tells it. Moonlight is a film about breaking, or being broken, or the act of navigating through brokenness to find oneself; a film dealing with scenes and emotions that are familiar to whom it is about. A film that bounds between the intersections of race, class, and sexuality to tear down barriers in film, in Black masculinity, and in the end, in intimacy as well. Every single actor we see deserves recognition, and Ashton Sanders, who plays teenage Chiron, deserves armfuls of awards for his performance.

The car ride home from the movie theater after seeing Moonlight felt a lot different than the car ride there. Instead of conversation filled with small pockets of silence, it felt like silence filled with small pockets of conversation. It took me five days to write this review after viewing Moonlight; I had to wade through the intentional dialog, masterful visuals, and take the time to appreciate the silence both in the film and in my life before I put it into words.

*This post is in partnership with OffThaRecord.