The Oscar-winning film premieres on SBS Australia and at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Images matter. How other people see us shapes how we see ourselves. The same is true for the names people give us. Some, like ‘little man,’ are bestowed with affection; others, like ‘faggot,’ are not, and can leave profound scars. Life is a constant process of renegotiating these shifting perceptions of self and otherness – a struggle to wrestle back control of who we are with our own hands and tongues.
There’s a beautiful moment in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight in which this knowledge is transferred from Juan (Mahershala Ali) to Chiron, or ‘Little’ (Alex R. Hibbert), as he’s known in the film’s opening chapter. Sitting side-by-side on the beach, Juan advises the cautious boy, “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make the decision for you.”
Moonlight is a character study in three gorgeous acts. In each, Chiron has a different name and is played by a different actor: ‘Little,’ when he’s around 12; teenaged Chiron (Ashton Sanders); and adult ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes), the moniker his school friend and crush, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and André Holland), gives him as a tribute to the glorious darkness of his skin. Chiron grows up poor in a Miami housing project, is bullied at school and neglected at home by his crack-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). External forces bruise him. Aware of his difference and desperately lonely, Chiron struggles to gain control of his name and with the complexities of being gay in an environment hostile to this identity.
Juan’s call for self-determination is also a manifesto of sorts for Jenkins. With Moonlight he wrestles black masculinity away from the dominant cultural narratives we imbibe from news, television, and movies. The broad rhetoric of social ills – mobilised by President Trump and his talk of ‘carnage’ in black and Hispanic urban centres – propagates fear and fortifies stereotypes1. From murder rates in Chicago, to police shootings of unarmed black men, to the continuing devastation caused by systemic discrimination, it’s a conversation ruled by violence, exploitation, and trauma, of black bodies locked up, enslaved, and murdered. There’s little joy in these stories, and even less hope.
"It’s not an overstatement to say that these intimate interactions feel revolutionary to watch. We live in a world where it’s still less shocking to see men wound rather than love each other."
Jenkins doesn’t deny these troubles. After all, he knows them first-hand. He grew up in Liberty City, the same Miami neighbourhood as Chiron, with a mother battling addiction. But he also knows this isn’t the only story to tell. Moonlight dismantles stereotypes from its opening scene, when we meet Juan, a drug dealer, as he checks in on business. Jenkins employs dizzying camerawork to unravel our expectations of who we think Juan is. Jenkins also has characters look directly into the camera, which has the effect of asking us to see into their hearts and their humanity. Moonlight might feature drug dealers and crack addicts, but Jenkins boldly declares that this isn’t going to be that kind of film.
Most profound, however, is the way in which Jenkins reimagines the intimate spaces between black men’s bodies. The rigid rules of hetero-masculinity demand men fear any physical contact with each other that doesn’t have aggressive tendencies. Hardness and a lack of emotion are prized. In addition, Jenkins interrogates a specifically black masculinity, here expressed through a ‘gangsta rap’ persona, with its attendant misogyny and homophobia. Black wears its gold-plated trappings, along with his muscularity, like protective armour. As he explains to Kevin, he’s made himself ‘hard’ in order to forget and not feel; performing a version of black masculinity that allows him to survive in a world where softness is potentially lethal. Moonlight exposes the soul-crushing effects of these toxic imperatives. Rejecting this dynamic, Jenkins effectively articulates a new visual language for the black male body on screen, one that is crafted around images of tenderness, nurture, yearning, and love.
Although Chiron is bullied and beaten, his most formative interactions are with men who love him – Juan, who takes on a father-like role, and Kevin, who offers a safe space and sexual discovery. Both have a relationship with Chiron built on openness, acceptance, and sensitivity. Juan offers refuge, food, comfort, and a sense of belonging that Little, who we never see fed or hugged by his mother, urgently needs. As Juan teaches him to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, he assures the boy, “Relax. I’ve got you. I promise you. I’m not going to let you go.” For a short time, this promise holds true. Juan watches and listens – he, and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), apply no pressure; they open their home and their hearts and ask nothing of Little in return.
Similarly, when the teenaged Chiron has his first sexual encounter with Kevin on the beach under the moonlight, there is compassion expressed in the act. When Chiron apologises for himself, Kevin, tenderly reassures him, “What you got to be sorry for?” Allowing Chiron to rest his head on his shoulder, as he will again when they are adults, underscores how touch has the power to heal, and how its absence is devastating. These relationships also remind us that intimacy is about trusting another person with the truth of who you really are, and in turn, about not rejecting that person when they unfold themselves before you.
Chiron’s sexuality adds another layer to these intimacies. His unspoken desire for Kevin, which undulates like waves through the film’s final act, are played out as the men face each other again for the first time in 10 years at the diner Kevin works at – the expression of recognition on Kevin’s face not to be surpassed by Black’s pleasure in being seen by one of the few people who truly knows him. The heady sequence that follows, in which Kevin prepares a meal for Black, and in which they talk and exchange charged looks across a booth, is handled with subtlety and sensuality by Jenkins. This frisson escalates, later, when they are in Black’s car. The proximity of their bodies in this confined space, the sweaty glow of anticipation for what the night might bring, is rendered more languorous and erotic by the use of Jidenna’s ‘Classic Man’ in a ‘chopped-and-screwed’ form that opens and slows time.
It’s not an overstatement to say that these intimate interactions feel revolutionary to watch. We live in a world where it’s still less shocking to see men wound rather than love each other. Radical, also, is the way Jenkins uses his camera to texture this new emotional landscape. Seemingly ordinary moments gain near-transcendent qualities; the housing projects are both terrifying and paradisiacal in their proximity to the beauty of the ocean. Jenkins uses light, colour, and Nicholas Britell’s hypnotic score, to remove the pathologising ugliness we usually attach to such scenarios; his debt to the Asian and French New Waves obvious in his ability to fill simple moments with heart swelling grandeur. In one such moment, when Black returns to the beach towards the film’s end, we know, through the use of gesture, sound, and score, that it’s drawing him into the past, reminding him of the two men who have mattered most.
Images start a conversation about faces, bodies, and experiences unlike our own. Cinema is, as Roger Ebert once said, “a machine that generates empathy,” and it’s a machine we need now more than ever. Moonlight is a miracle of a film, born of great empathy from all involved in its creation. Jenkins and his collaborators have begun a revolution – not with guns, but with love.
Moonlight premieres on SBS Australia at 8.30pm on Friday 15 March.
Estados Unidos, 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland, Mahershala Ali
What's it about?
The tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.
Moonlight review: A fearless and exhilarating character study
Mahershala Ali says “I am a Muslim” in emotional speech after winning SAG Award for ‘Moonlight’
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