Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

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One comment

  1. mghamner · December 2, 2016

    TJ, thank you; this is a great review. I especially appreciate what you’ve said about fluidity and intimacy, and the sense that queerness “writhes beneath the surface of the narrative”.

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