I saw Moonlight over a month ago now, and when I didn’t write about right after seeing it, I thought, “well now it would be weird, cause it was so long ago.” But fuck it. I want to talk about Moonlight.
And after everything that went down at the Oscars, it has become a historic film for several reasons, but I want to actually look at the actual film itself.
It’s become a stereotype at this point that it’s one of those movies that you always say “I want to see that” about but never actually do. And I was one of those people. But then one day I dragged myself out of the house, found a theater were it was playing, and saw it. And I’m very glad I did. Because it affected me.
Every moment of the film is beautifully shot. I’m not always the best judge of the visual aspects of a film (I studied more screenwriting, less production), but even I recognized and respected the precision in the framing and the use of colors, deep muted tones dynamically playing off bright florescent hues.
The story structure is massively transparent. Act breaks are clearly called out as the film is split into three segments. But this does nothing to detract from the story. Instead, it enforces the changes the protagonist goes through.
The question “what’s it about?” is a hard one for me to answer. Because I don’t want to give anything away. Because I really new very little about it going in.
But it’s about 3 specific events in a man’s life, one that happens to him in childhood, one that happens to him in adolescence, and one that happens to him in adulthood, and how they shape him. I guess you could say the movie’s about a question, a chair and a diner.
i. The Question
I absolutely adore silent films (one of my favorite movies is a Harold Lloyd picture from 1927). But I’m also a bit of a dialogue junky, so I can sometimes be put off by a movie that doesn’t have a lot of talking in it. Sometimes. In Moonlight so much is told with so few words spoken. Not that there’s no dialogue in the film. Far from it. But there are long stretches of silence, and the central character, Chiron, doesn’t speak for the first several scenes he’s in.
It’s a very quiet movie overall really. This adds to the intimate feeling you get while watching it. There are points where you almost feel too close, but Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and the brilliant cast are giving you permission. See this, feel this (like the Who song).
The movie also presents its characters in such a wonderful way, neither heroes nor villains, just people. They do good things and bad things. They’re humans.
Mahershala Ali’s character, Juan, is possibly the best example of this. He plays a fairly major role in the first section of the story, though he doesn’t appear after that. He gives Chiron a metaphorical (but very nearly literal) baptism. He takes care of Chiron when his family isn’t able to. And he gives the answer to the question.
Juan’s also a drug dealer, and Chiron’s drug-addicted mother (played brilliantly by Naomie Harris, the only actor to appear in all 3 segments) is furious that he could present himself to her son as such a kind and caring stranger, while simultaneously peddling her the drugs she’s so addicted to.
Chiron trusts Juan, but finally confronts him. He actually asks him 3 questions. The first about Juan, whether he sells drugs, and the second two about himself. Chiron wants to know what “faggot” means and if he is one. And it’s the last interaction we see between the two of them. Juan’s responses are the most perfect I’ve heard.
Juan’s girlfriend, Lisa (played by the human equivalent of sunshine, Janelle Monae), appears again in the second section and is mentioned in the third, but Juan appears only in the first segment of the film.
I’d be remiss not to mention that this is also the introduction of Kevin, the first friendship that Chiron has with a child his own age, and a character who he’s irrevocably bonded with, though just how much you don’t even realize until the end.
ii. The Chair
Chiron, who went by “Little” in the first part, isn’t little in the second. He’s skinny, but tall. And yet his confidence is as small as it ever was. He seems to be constantly wishing himself invisible. Except with Kevin. Kevin and Lisa seem the only people he really has a safe haven with. But as Kevin tells tales of his conquests with girls, Chiron begins to worry he will always be something other.
Until that scene on the beach. Maybe he’s not alone. Maybe he’s not the only one of his kind.
And then the bully who’s been picking on Chiron asks Kevin if he’ll rough up a kid for him. The next time Chiron meets with his bully, Kevin is told to kick the living shit out of Chiron, and Kevin does. And there are all sorts of mixed up feelings.
And that’s where I realized the true genius of the movie. I didn’t realize at the time. At the time I was too caught up in the movie, but in reviewing it in my head afterward. Here’s the thing. This movie. It’s not relatable to me. I’m a straight white women and I come with a bundle of privilege. So this movie didn’t make me empathetic. It made me sympathetic. It made me experience and feel things that I haven’t experienced and won’t experience. And it’s SO emotive.
And it does a funny thing. Because I think most people who appreciate the movie are probably pretty anti-violence, but when Chiron goes into school the day after Kevin’s betrayal, the day after school faculty urged him to tell them who had hurt him, the day after everything he’d built up was torn down, the viewers are feeling Chiron’s pain, and he just wants to make the bully feel pain.
Chiron’s pain was physical, but worse yet was the emotional and psychological damage. He can’t deliver all that, but there is one form of revenge he knows he can deal. And he does it out in the open. In the form of a bludgeoning chair wielder. And it’s a moment of release for the audience as well as Chiron, even knowing the near immediate results of the action.
So, of course, in the end, it’s Chiron who is taken away and the shell forming around him is complete. Kevin glimpses Chiron as the cops load him into the police car. Kevin will need to hear the story second hand, try to piece together what happened on his own as he sees Chiron for what, as far as he knows, could be the last time.
iii. The Diner
But they do meet again and their next meeting is anything but a chance encounter. And I wondered about that. Why not just create a situation where they’re both costumers at a diner and happened to be getting a meal at the same place one night? By chance? I think what the point may have been was that fate wasn’t playing a role in this. It wasn’t luck or destiny. The movie, in many ways, is about the freedom of choice: when you have it, when you don’t, and how you use it.
Chiron has completely transformed from the wiry meek adolescent we last saw him as. He now looks big and muscly (and GORGEOUS) and like the sort of guy you don’t want to cross. It’s soon revealed that internally he is still very similar to the boy he was. He’s almost playing off stereotypes of masculinity.
And Kevin’s phone call, as off hand as it may have intended to sound, is a loaded invitation. Chiron’s choice in if and how he accepts it will dictate the third event that shapes his life.
Everything about the diner scene is intense. The prickly feeling I had while watching it was akin to a thriller, though the emotions I went through were very different.
Everything from Chiron’s entrance to Kevin’s slow recognition of him to the preparation of the mean to the music playing on the jukebox, even the patronage of the few customers on a slow night at a 50’s style restaurant, all build up a tense feeling. A strong worry. It must have been how Chiron was feeling. Seeing Kevin wouldn’t put him at ease. It would set him on edge.
But Chiron also seemed free of rage. He never blamed Kevin for the fallout of the middle chapter in his story.
But that scene plays out so beautifully and feels so true. And the idea of food and music soothing a soul seems very right. They speak quietly. Again, there’s an intimacy to the scene, but the quiet doesn’t mean that there aren’t massive shifts constantly happening. There are hints of confusion, frustration, attraction, disillusionment, and most importantly hope. Hope against hope against hope.
The rest of that third section seems so brief, a drive in a car, a glimpse of the beach, a conversation in a kitchen, a confession, an embrace, and a hope.
The ending isn’t exactly happy, but it certainly isn’t sad. It’s hopeful. Even if these two characters choose to go their separate ways, Chiron has been healed. I, for one, think that’s the more honest ending, perfect for a very honest film.
I haven’t been able to get Moonlight out of my head. Especially the diner scene. So there’s no reason not to keep talking about it.