Moonlight mends the problems of the past and reclaims them in a cinematic experience that is sophisticated, inspiring and relevant.
Eighties America and Miami’s Black population is fraying at the edges. Conservative political forces reign and they’re wilfully ignoring the spread of HIV among gay men; the civil rights wins of the 60s are being challenged; and crack cocaine is fast becoming a destructive panacea to the overbearing misery. Enter ‘Little’, a Black, effeminate boy on the run from school bullies.
Little’s life is shown in the first of a chronological tryptitch that tenderly illuminates his world; a world with an emotionally-abusive single mother, a drug dealer who serves as a tender and jarring father figure, energetic, frenetic, homophobia-conditioned school boys – save for one who tells Little that its perfectly okay to ‘stand up for yourself’.
We’re also introduced to the sea and throughout the film it becomes a character in its own right: it is a body of melancholy that is said to be the culmination of all the world’s tears; it is shown as a site a cleansing and acceptance in a pseudo-baptism; at night the beach becomes the cusp between the real world and a world unknown, governed by the strength of the moon’s light. To that end, the sea is a metaphor for Little.
In one melancholy scene, Little fills a bath (lugging hot water heated on the kitchen stove) in the hope of recreating the safe space that is the sea; as he sits in the tepid water we forgive him his childish naivety and in turn we offer Little sympathy.
Before the second triptych, before we meet Shiron, Little’s mother sprays a tirade of abuse over her son. Notably she’s inaudible, mute. We don’t hear her venomous words but we know exactly what she’s screaming, we know where it has come from, we know why she is in such a state, the last thing we need as an audience is to be slapped by the reality of homophobia. We forgive ourselves for allowing a child to endure homophobic venom alone and in turn we offer Little empathy.
In Shiron’s tryptitch the restlessness becomes even more relentless, it becomes menacing and overbearing. School is a hell, home is no better. Shiron’s morally-dubious sanctuary is a home built on the funds from drug dealing, where food is paid for with misery. Shiron also finds sanctuary back at the beach one night where he and a school mate smoke a blunt and make a sexual connection. They kiss, and replete with empathy we too are revived and relieved.
By the third and final segment our protagonist has come-of-age and goes by the name Black. Black is built, he’s served time, he’s dealing drugs, has gold-plated teeth, fine threads and a car to match. At this point we’ve been presented with a stereotype of the much-maligned Black man, but we know his story and the components that make up his hardened, ‘anti-social’ character.
We all know those films that re-appropriate the past, the type that offers a new & informed lens on humanity’s malevolent histories, we lap them up, happily reimagining what we know of the challenges of racism, sexism, homophobia… and we walk out of the cinema warm, indulged and satisfied.
Moonlight’s strength is the choice it makes to reject the need to be didactic and sentimental about the past and our feelings toward history. Moonlight makes the audience do the work, it isn’t like Hidden Figures where relief is delivered by way of an explosive monologue about segregated toilets and coffee percolators. There’s no great white hope in the form of Kevin Costner with a crowbar symbolically smashing the signs of hate. In watching Moonlight we all have to foster hope. Moonlight presents a tender and poetic world where social issues are owned without choice and woven, before they become tangled and tightly knotted.
By the films end we are left with empathy and understanding, and an ability to detangle the knots of the past; and with luck we might begin to untangle the hateful, heartless mess we’re in today.