Why ’Moonlight’ is fully deserving of its high-voltage buzz

Moonlight is a meditative, colourful and entirely timely film
A scene from the movie "Moonlight" (David Bornfriend)
A scene from the movie "Moonlight" (David Bornfriend)
A scene from the movie Moonlight. (David Bornfriend)

Update, February 27, 2017: After a wild final moment at the 2017 Academy Awards, Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Early in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, the story’s unnamed, African-American narrator recalls a story of retreating to his rent-free basement apartment, lighting a “reefer,” and dropping the needle on his favourite phonograph record, Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue.” Under the influence of the pot, Ellison’s narrator hears the song with new ears. Its central refrain explodes into an existential lament, as Armstrong implores his listener, as if addressing him directly, “What did I do, to be so black and blue?”

Armstrong’s soul-searching inquest echoes throughout Invisible Man, radiates out across the intervening half-century-plus of black American art, and finds itself reflected, consciously or not, in the title of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, adapted by writer-director Barry Jenkins as the new film Moonlight.

Midway through the movie, its hero, a young, black, gay man named Chiron (played in various stages of his life by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert) suffers a savage assault at the hands of high school bullies. Among them is the object of Chiron’s guarded affections. As Chiron surveys himself in the mirror, post-beatdown, Moonlight finds what is perhaps its singular image: a young man’s beautiful body, bloodied and beaten, black and blue.

Ashton Sanders in a scene from the movie "Moonlight". (David Bornfriend)
Ashton Sanders in a scene from Moonlight. (David Bornfriend)

Moonlight premiered earlier this year at the Telluride Film Festival en route to becoming a full-blown sensation at TIFF, carried on that rarest kind of publicity: sputtering critical raves and high-voltage buzz that’s actually merited. (That it connects, however incidentally, to contemporary issues facing both black and LGBTQ communities probably says less about Moonlight’s greatness and more about the grinding lousiness of our current historical moment.)

Following Chiron at three key moments in his life, Moonlight is, in the tradition of a black American Bildungsroman like Ellison’s Invisible Man, a story that’s as self-consciously important as it is subtle and understated. In this, only his second feature, Barry Jenkins conjures as many memorable images—Chiron seeing his broken body in a mirror, a young Chiron learning to float in the waters off the coast of Miami, the quietly desirous scene of Chiron exploring his sexuality with a childhood friend—than most directors stumble upon in whole careers.

Like 2014’s white, middle-class coming-of-age epic, Boyhood, Moonlight feels authentically lived-in and true to its low-income, Miami beach backdrop, where both Jenkins and playwright McCraney grew up.

Instead of casting the rough-and-tumble backdrop into bleakness and misery—one suggested as much by Chiron’s lifelong struggles against bullies and tormentors who seem to sniff out his sexual difference even when he’s just a little kid, and his quarrels with his contemptuous, crack addict mother (Naomie Harris)—Jenkins depicts Miami with the kind of quiet beauty it’s rarely afforded. It’s a city drowned, appropriately, in deep blacks and steely blues, shot through with the bright flares of overhead street lamps. It’s a place that seems caught in perpetual twilight.

A scene from the movie "Moonlight" (David Bornfriend)
A scene from Moonlight (David Bornfriend)

Likewise, while the script has the markers of spiked, screeching, high-stakes indie drama—bullied gay kid! crackhead mom!—Moonlight is, like young Chiron, quiet and meditative. When we first meet Chiron, he’s almost mute, on the lam from his mom and seeking comfort in the home of a big-hearted drug dealer (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) and his girlfriend (the R&B singer Janelle Monáe). In an interview with Film Comment, Jenkins said that this approach proceeded, like much of the film, from his own youthful experiences as a “quiet kid.”

“I ended up watching people a lot,” he says, “more than interacting, in a certain way. I think you can learn a lot more about people when they’re not speaking than you can when they’re speaking. People say, ‘Oh, you can learn more by actions than statements.’ But I do think that when people are in repose, you really see beneath the surface.”

Much of Moonlight is about emotions and identities that seem to seethe beneath surfaces. Just as the film’s alluring images jive against the often brutal reality of Chiron’s life experience, so too does Chiron’s presentation of himself work as a knowing cover for his queerness. In the world of hyper-macho black masculinity in which he lives, Chiron’s sexuality could be a death sentence. Kids mock him for his gait and for his too-tight jeans. The bullies call him “Little,” for his diminutive size, and mock him as a “faggot” before Chiron is even old enough to know what the word means.

As he matures from a quiet, meditative kid to a gangly adolescent and, finally, to a grown man with the rippling, muscular frame of Marvel Comics’ bulletproof black superhero Luke Cage, Chiron’s identity feels like an elaborate, carefully polished surface. When Chiron—fully grown, now calling himself “Black”—is reacquainted with his one-off teenage lover, Kevin (André Holland), his old flame puts a question that might as well be Moonlight’s central thesis interrogation: “Who is you?”

The phrasing may needle grammarians, but it feels—like pretty much everything in the film—deceptively profound. We ask people who they are, as if there’s a presumption of belonging to some group implied by the collective copula. The is makes the question singular, and more personal. Who is Chiron, or “Little,” or “Black”? Who is he, not as a collection of markers of identity—a black, quietly queer man living in the American south—but as an individual? Who is Chiron?

The African-American historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks. Du Bois defines double consciousness as the “sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Basically: the oppressed learn to see, and understand, themselves as they are seen and understood by their oppressors. Their self-image, and indeed their own consciousness, is distorted (or doubled) accordingly. The philosopher Frantz Fanon developed this idea in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks, in which he writes that “not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”

Moonlight expands this idea in meaningful ways, in order to account for Chiron’s gayness and its relation to his blackness. It’s a film where whiteness, and even white characters, are meaningfully absent. Against this socially segregated milieu, systemic oppression is reproduced along lines of sexuality and masculinity. As James Baldwin noted in his essay The Fire Next Time, “People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal . . . but they love the idea of being superior.” Chiron’s story is one of this struggle against superiority. The consciousness of the oppressor is doubled, passed on to the oppressed, and doubled-down upon again, further burdening the minorities within the minorities, those against whom the arc of history and injustice bows.

The so-called “black existentialist” philosophy and literature of writers like Baldwin, Fanon, DuBois, Ellison and others grappled with such compounded burdens, arguing that blackness offered up powerful points of reference for understanding systems of oppression, superiority, colonization and dominance. By threading queerness through this experience, Moonlight provides a candid, achingly melancholic portrait of marginalization in America.

It’s when Chiron drinks in his own crushed and swollen body that he first comes to understand who he is. Like Ellison’s hero, Chiron wants to pass as invisible, to slip seamlessly through a social world to which he does not quite belong. When the film ends, in the full rush of ravishing melancholy, Chiron has dealt with his place in the world through alienation and quietude, through social awkwardness and retaliatory violence, and finally with a kind of modestly wizened kindness that doesn’t so much mask the character’s essential sadness as complement it. Moonlight’s a sorrowful, relevant, finely drawn story of a boy learning to be both black, and blue.