Moonlight (USA, 2016) Directed by Barry Jenkins


i’m a fan of brad pitt, the executive producer. i’ve found him lurking behind some exciting projects in the last couple of years—The Tree of Life (2011); The OA (2016–); Moonlight (2016). He has, currently on imDb, two more credits as a producer than as an actor (83-81)—impressive numbers on their own even without considering that some of the notable projects he’s endorsed did not have any kind of a bankable precedent in the industry. there’s a special place in my heart for any and everyone who had anything to do with making brit marling’s The OA a reality: what magical maneuverings had to have taken place behinds the scenes for netflix to commit to an entire series written by, partially directed and starring a 33 year old industry outsider whose unique vision was without the filmography to back it up—forever grateful netflix took the bait on brit. in that same year he got behind another unprecedented first for mainstream filmmaking—even by independent filmmaking standards, Moonlight was a leap of faith for box office results. of course brad wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the business end of pre-production, but i couldn’t pass on the one link between one of my favourite cinematic events of 2016 (The OA) and the object of what was the most dramatic event at the oscars in recent memory.

the ending of Moonlight, it’s last shot in particular, was especially satisfying: chiron standing on a beach facing the water with his back to the camera, as if hearing his name called, looks back at as us for a fleeting moment that had the characteristic quality of a memory: the stillness of eternity.  francois truffaut’s Le Quatre Cents Coups (1959)—which translates clumsily to english as ‘the 400 blows’, a french idiom which means to ‘give them hell’—had a similar ending which made that film famous: antoine, running away from a juvenile’s shelter, finds himself at the end of his run, wandering aimlessly on a beach and all of sudden stops to look directly at the camera while a freeze-frame zooms in on his face just before the credits roll. more than the similarity in setting, i was reminded of truffaut because Moonlight is about the labyrinthine network of memories that make up a childhood as much as it was about male sexuality. of course what is different between the two boys is how much more introverted and bracketed chiron's personality was—nothing of that four hundred blows—which made his direct address to the camera at the end of the film even more memorable.

  “I did not disappear. I was present for all of it—all seven years, three months, and 11 days” was the response brit marling’s character in The OA gave to the fbi agent questioning her about her abduction at a young age; one could say the same for children like chiron. their inability to express themselves relegates them to an invisibility to which they’ve got front row seats. on the spectrum of silence, children like chiron—those most in need of an emotional dialogue—fuse shut at a crucial age and so much of what becomes adulthood is merely sedimentation on top of that calcified form rather than any kind of ‘growth’. again, that’s what makes that final turn towards the camera so much more harrowing—as if the child is saying with his eyes what we hope wasn’t the case all along: ‘i felt it, i felt it all’.  

one also gets the feeling of saying goodbye to something more than a film at its end. as with antoine, chiron too is looking directly at us at the moment when we imagine a realization sets in: to be sure, it's not a conscious realization, no narrative aspect to it, but merely a moment you recognize in retrospect. that is, the end of playfulness. that frolicsome era of our early years that health and grace elongates well into teenagehood can be for some children so abbreviated an experience that their adulthood questions if it ever happened at all. yet another french film of truffaut’s era captures this sentiment with chilling dreariness: Louis Malle’s Au Revoire Les Enfants (1987), translating to ‘goodbye children’ ends with a group of boys watching a beloved teacher hauled away by nazis--it’s the teacher’s parting words that gave the film its name. the ‘children’ he’s saying goodbye to belong more to a state of mind than to a set of parents. the light of a universal childhood that is by definition our birthright can be extinguished cruelly and prematurely by forces that are arguably themselves symptoms of childhood cruelty—be it fascism in Au Revoir Les Enfants, dissolution of the family structure in Les Quatre Cents Coups or homophobia in Moonlight.

Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy, 
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, 
He sees it in his joy; 
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest, 
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended; 
At length the Man perceives it die away, 
And fade into the light of common day. 
William Wordsworth,  Ode To Intimations

ahh, when the topic is this tender, even a poet’s touch can be too coarse—thankfully there’s wordsworth. yes he’s a bit on the moralizing side but his Ode to Intimations is the kind of sympathy that taunts even pain to valor. this poem’s lament is the kind that concerns our topic—the ends of freshness, the wiltings of innocence—in it he asks of that universal childhood: 

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul's immensity; 
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind, 
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep, 
Haunted forever by the eternal mind,— 
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke, 
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife? 
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, 
And custom lie upon thee with a weight, 
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

with chiron, and every child who has more to say than their capacity and permission to speak allows, it’s not them that ‘provokes the years to bring its inevitable yoke’. custom begins to lie upon and against them as soon as their peers suspect their otherness. perhaps what makes wordsworth’s poems ‘moralizing’ is his desire for reconciliation: he brings this question back to something of an answer: 

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight, 
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; 
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind; 
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be; 
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering; 
In the faith that looks through death, 
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

there is another film to which Moonlight is something of a companion. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and Moonlight seem to exist in the same cinematic universe, even to point of production design. the ubiquitously blue scenes of abdellatif kechiche’s social-experiment of a film anticipate the blues in Moonlight—that is, the blue of black bodies in moonlight. (the film is an adaptation of an unproduced play by tarell mccraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue).  that’s another thing Moonlight was: a celebration of black bodies. i have a peculiar appreciation for that. on my high school basketball team there was a teammate named kareem who is one of those natural comedians to whom making people laugh is as obvious as asking for directions when lost. he couldn't bear silence, to him it was an affront to how much we need each other. i was the object of one of his more famous jokes on the way back from a game: ‘you ain't black. you’re blahkkkkkk. my nigga you purple”. i couldn’t help but laugh (he’s as dark as i am), it was our joke. and i couldn’t help but think of that during mahersala ali’s monologue after teaching chiron how to swim. i’m reminded of nights from my childhood in nigeria, in the kind of darkness the city has never known...therein moonlight has a luminous power that’s concentrated and diffused at the same time. in that cold clean light our bodies had a neon quality of blue to their sheen. blue really is the warmest colour

but of course, however similar their subject matter is, Moonlight just doesn’t enjoy the same freedom of expression as Blue is the Warmest Colour. we just don’t have sufficient precedent on screen of two black men openly expressing emotional vulnerabilities… let alone sexual attraction towards each other. acceptance of homosexuality has been the exception in so-called black communities. it’s the emotional vulnerability, more than sexuality, that defines this film for me. gone is the usual chip-on-the-shoulder back-against-the-wall prototypical inner city coming-of-age story of black youths. there was still that indispensable macho attitudes, but contextualized within a much more humanizing needy tenderness.  

thinking critically about this film is a unique problem borne of so little of a referential framework to popular works of art that sympathetically depict gay black men. progress in that respect is ultimately a matter of exposure. i really can’t decide how good a film Moonlight was on account of being so shocked by what is otherwise an unimaginative coming of age story. progress is also the prospect of this film being irrelevant in a decade—by then, if one is optimistic, much more would be demanded of a plot concerning queer black men than the simplicity  Moonlight relied upon in order to simply show us that they exist.

perhaps shocking isn’t the right word—but i’d never seen anything like that. thankfully i’d been prepared for occasions such as these by professionals to whom shock is a mere currency. those naturally on the forefront of social progress. comedians for example. doug stanhope especially: 

in summa summarum, i give this film 8.24 mahersala ali out of 10 janelle monae