Moonlight is made of silence. I should say Moonlight is made from silence, its characters the product of a world where much is known but never spoken. The silence in Moonlight is what propels it forward, featuring fable-like cinematography (by James Laxton) and showcasing some of the best acting any of us will encounter. What I love most about this Barry Jenkins film adapted from a play by Tarrell McCraney is that its silence does for it what art must do in order to be art. In its quietest moments, the film asks us to participate, to make conjectures about its story and then to question why we came to such conclusions. But I should start with the bad news…
I’ve seen Moonlight four times, though I’m not sure that I should count the first time since I watched almost every scene through tears. I cried at various points all the other times too, but at least I was prepared to pay a closer attention through my blurred vision. My major problem with the film isn’t a problem with the film at all. The trouble with having seen something I believe everyone else should experience, the trouble with attempting to write about it, is that it’s hard to get people to go see a movie when you can’t narrow what it’s “about.” For instance, it seems important to some to characterize it as a gay movie or even to say that its main character is struggling with the fact that he’s gay.
While I myself am most definitely gay, I don’t have any criteria for deciding that someone else is (or is not). It seems that the point of the film isn’t to highlight the trials of being gay. Instead, Jenkins means for us to wonder why Chiron (the protagonist played at three stages of his life by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively) is thought of as gay by schoolmates and by adults in his community.
The mandate for silence is led by Alex Hibbert, who plays Chiron at his youngest. I’m not really sure why or how someone as young as Hibbert is as great an actor as he is, but I do know that his talent is frightening in the loveliest way. From the start of the film, we know what Chiron’s life is and has been like because of what he can’t and won’t say. His face and eyes do the work of sorrow. He is nicknamed “Little” as a sort of jibe and ridiculed, often threatened, chased, called faggot. The truth, though, is that there is nothing stereotypically gay about Hibbert’s portrayal of Chiron. The boy has to wonder if he is gay not because he feels that way but because so many people call him that to hurt him. The teenage version of Chiron (played with an amazing sense of reticence by Ashton Sanders) is also bullied, it seems, for being gay, but accepting this as the reason for his torment means we put trust in what his bully says about him.
It is silly to think we can narrow the best of any art down to what it’s “about,” especially when the question of about-ness usually has something to do with narrative facts. A lot happens in the first part of this three-sectioned film, but me telling you “the child—of a mother who smokes crack—gets taught to swim by a drug dealer” won’t tell you what Moonlight is “about.” I can’t send someone to see this film based on something that happens in it because every action and inaction are so necessary to its whole; every moment is a spoiler. Complex characters make for complex relationships. And there is no familiar moment: no destitute person gets rich in the end, no one is riddled with bullets Singleton-style, no opposites attract before falling in love. But since that sounds ridiculous and you think I’m being a tease…
Moonlight is about intimacy between black men. It is so silent because many don’t believe it’s there, and others don’t feel free to express that we’ve experienced it. Jenkins knows this intimacy is possible, that it exists in reality, that it is more than important to our survival. He also knows that even those of us who have experienced it doubt it because we haven’t seen it in all of its iterations in a single film until now. Men need one another as brothers, as fathers and sons, as friends, and yes, sometimes as lovers. Sometimes men need to touch, to hold one another in a comforting way that isn’t at all erotic.
This intimacy is made real through the film’s focus on characters who are actual and whole human beings. Chiron is in many ways mentored by Juan (played by Mahershala Ali who continues to impress us since long before his portrayal of Tizzy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Juan is a drug dealer, but Jenkins and Ali take every necessary step to complicate our idea of what this means in film. Juan is a reflective man who loves his woman, thinks deeply about his blackness, and pledges to pray for the mothers of the men who work for him. Juan and Chiron meet in the midst of opposite experiences, Juan expressing his power as a kind of warden of the street, Chiron terrorized by those streets.
Chiron’s mother Paula (acted brilliantly by Naomie Harris) is a hard-working single parent who begins using drugs to escape her life as a hard-working single parent. Where I’m from, people would call her a “crackhead.” Moonlight is kind to her in ways we are not necessarily kind to one another, reminding us that black women who are on drugs are people who deal with the disease of addiction, capable of rehabilitation and of being forgiven.
The earliest scenes are emotional in that they allow black children to be imagined as children. Chiron dances with his class in front of a mirror in the unabashed way that only a child can…in spite of his traumatic childhood. Boys play a makeshift game that mixes soccer and football. And they wrestle themselves into breathless laughter.
Chiron himself is at once sincerely curious and alarmingly shy. Throughout the movie, water becomes a site for his nurture and his self-care, whether through drawing a bath, learning to swim, icing bruises as a child, or submerging his face in a sink of ice as an adult in a world that claims he must be numb to live in it. By the third movement of the film, he understands that he should disguise himself with the accouterments of supposed black male masculinity to survive, and he blasts a chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” to hide the ways he is naturally quiet. But even he has to admit to a physical need for intimacy to gain the healing his life requires. The silence of Moonlight often characterizes moments in which Chiron comes to a conclusion in spite of how his thoughts mute the noise and talk around him. The film’s pacing allows us to make these moments of meditation our own. Moonlight maintains its tone through the complexity of its characters, their ability to think and our ability to think about them as we would people that we know.
The last scenes of the movie are the only ones that include white people, though these white people are only extras: visitors at a rehabilitation clinic, customers as a diner. They seem to represent the only world where some stability can be gained for characters like Paula (Chiron’s mother) and Kevin, but of course, that stability costs them their freedom and their labor.
Fully appreciating the film depends on us meeting these black people in their introspective complexity and asking ourselves why we continue to doubt their wholeness. Part of this has to do with what Hollywood has allowed of itself – or the distance between what we know about ourselves and how often we get to see what we know reflected in art. Even the characters themselves have a hard time realizing possibility. Kevin, for instance, cannot accept Chiron’s final incarnation though he himself is not the person he was in high school.
In all, life runs alongside and intersects the jeopardy inherent with living in this country. Some of us are more often at risk. These characters are not sweeping representations of some idea or archetype. They’re people, and we find ourselves forgiving them for that. Moonlight is not sociology or social commentary. Still, it understands that the private lives of these characters are lived in a nation that is not on their side. When Juan says, “In the moonlight, black boys look blue! You’re blue!” he says it so we can understand that these Black people will always be more than what the state imagines. They are even more than what we imagine they can be before we sit down to have our lives changed by sight and silence of Moonlight.