A Personal Response to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016)
This Is Where We Came In
When writers and artists, critics and theorists talk about finding the universal in the specific, they’re talking about works of art like Moonlight (2016).
This is a film, specifically located in the palm tree’d ghettos of Florida, focused solely on black characters, depicting without judgment a young black man discovering his sexuality and coming into adulthood in a poverty-culture that almost coerces graduation into drug dealing.
Moonlight also proudly denies our contemporary mode of freeform narrative. Restricting itself to essentially three episodes of unified action, the film maintains tenants of traditional storytelling; however, the film’s aesthetics proudly explore a much more sensuous and experiential way of exploring the story.
This aesthetic belongs distinctly to the film’s director, Barry Jenkins, whose previous film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) has all the ambition of this film, without the technical prowess or purity of intent. Watching that film made me hunger to see Moonlight again; I felt that I knew Jenkins better for having watched it, and as I sat through his sophomore feature for the second time, visceral delight and understanding filled me.
When I say that most films nowadays use color almost pointlessly, it’s not to critique them. Even a film as awesome as Mad Max: Fury Road uses color almost as if it were black-and-white—a set of contrasts; were we in the 1940s, films like Boyhood or Manchester by the Sea, two of my favorite films from the last several years, would sit perfectly comfortable in black-and-white. Moonlight, however, demands its color. It bathes itself in rich, saturated blues—tumbles in the greens of nature—heightens the everyday with splashes of surreal reds and purples—and admires and adores the shades of brown and black of its cast.
There’s no point in continuing in this vein. Moonlight is empirically the most lauded film of the year (if not, criminally, the most awarded). Its cast is uniformly stunning (especially Mahershala Ali). Its technical elements all of the highest quality. Not only will you be able to read any number of reviews from Richard Brody to A.O. Scott to find praise and adulation, but if you simply sit down to watch the film, you will see in it all the wonders everyone’s been speaking of. Instead of a technical review, I simply would like to talk about the final moments. I suppose this is a spoiler alert.
The film ends, with Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now an adult, now alone and living austerely as a drug dealer after having spent several years in jail, receives a phone call from an old friend, Kevin (André Holland), who he had an integral sexual encounter with as a teenager. He drives to see Kevin, who makes him dinner at a diner he’s now working at, before they go home. Chiron opens up, and the film ends, quietly, with Chiron and Kevin together, intimately connected.
I was not prepared for the unpretentious, sincere, earnest cinema Barry Jenkins had in store for me. I was not prepared to see, in a single shot, all of heteronormative masculinity indicted. I was not prepared to be confronted with images of men—societally envisioned as strong, supportive, and shallow in their emotional vulnerability—completely vulnerable, soft. I saw in this moment my own self, hardened by casual and careless gender norms, completely free in the sweet, delicate intimacy of two lovers holding each other.
I feel now in the film a depiction of emotional trauma. Of how, as we, human beings, are hurt and abused and betrayed and neglected—diminished and denied and set-up and demanded of, we build up shelters ultimately degrading to our qualities of life. How long we may hold in our hearts love and let it become comatose while we lose those around us for whom that love has always been meant.
How infrequently we truly come across depictions of the human condition. Shattering ourselves with works of art is a necessary moral activity if we are to progress as individuals in a society ever-increasingly confused by what humanity means.