Fragile. A word I couldn’t get out of my head as Moonlight played. Since American History X, I can’t think of another film so honest in its handling of material, so delicate in its treatment of the ponderous issues highlighted in the script. It’s intense, and yet, it’s light. This beautiful dichotomy is perhaps reflective of the life many homosexual people are forced to lead amid intolerant, oppressive societies. Moonlight is about sexualiy, identity, culture… it’s about all of these considerable themes, and yet, at its heart, it’s perhaps just a delicate love story of two African-American men: Kevin (played at various times by Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, and Jaden Piner), who has generally tried to belong by towing the line of the majority, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert), the protagonist, who quietly tries to bear the brunt of all the hostility that comes his way. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in the scene when Kevin punches Chiron to fit in with his peers. Chiron stands up and takes every blow proudly; he unlike Kevin won’t deny his identity.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders
Story: A chronicling of a young black man as he grows from childhood to adulthood in the rought neighbourhood of Miami
The film is an involving, moving meditation. The material is a heavy decoction of gender stereotypes, identity crisis, nature and nurture, and yet, it miraculously feels as light as a feather, as fragile as a dream. It’s perhaps no coincidence that at two crucial junctures in the film, Chiron has two revelatory dreams; dreams that remind him of who he is, what he wants. You can fake your waking life, but you can’t your dreams.
Moonlight is about three chapters; three crucial phases of Chiron’s nightmarish life. As a child, he’s constantly bullied for being different. His single mother is a drug abuser. At all times, he cowers like a timid prey that knows its time is up. I cannot think of another protagonist who has so little to say throughout a film. When he does talk though, his pain spills through lines so delicate that you want to wrap him up in a blanket and hide him somewhere, just so the world can’t hurt him any more. As a child, he asks his adult friend, Juan what the word ‘fag***’ means. The sensitive Juan says, “It’s a word people use to make gay people feel bad.” In another scene, he is by the seashore, and his defences are lowered in the presence of Kevin. In a conversation as beautiful as it rings real, Kevin asks him if he cries. He says, “I cry so much sometimes that I feel like I’m gonna turn to drops.”
The sea, the soothing sound of waves, and moonlight are running motifs in the film. It’s when Chiron is in the tumult of waves that he can truly smile. It’s where he’s insulated from the unkindness of the world. Juan once tells him of a story from his past, one in which a Cuban woman called him ‘Blue’ as “black people look blue in moonlight.” And then, he gives Chiron advice. “Never let somebody else decide what your name is. You decide what you should be called.” It’s not so much about the names, as it’s about defining one’s identity, including one’s sexual orientation.
Moonlight is shot grittily, as uncomfortably close to characters as possible. The camera is often shaky, and closes in on the characters, perhaps to convey accurately the imperfections of life. The characters and situations in Moonlight are complex and real. If you, like me, were moved by the final restaurant scene in La La Land, wait till you see its more powerful, subtler counterpoint in Moonlight. As Chiron says in one scene, “I could almost hear my heart beat.” Or how about Chiron’s mother, who he meets as an adult? You are encouraged by director Barry Jenkins to empathise with her. People are prone to mistakes, and forgiveness is sometimes essential for love and self-redemption. Yet, these lessons, like the many others in Moonlight, are never hammered in. That’s the miracle of a beautiful story. Its lessons reach out even when they are not made obvious, sometimes when they are not even planned.
This review was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.