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Moon Over Miami

Moonlight

a film directed by Barry Jenkins
David Bornfriend/A24
Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders as the teenagers Kevin and Chiron in Moonlight

The Oscar-winning film Moonlight gives an impression throughout of being tinged with the color blue. Already in the beginning, after a blue car, its blue interior, white T-shirt and pillow tinted blue by morning light, blue sneaker soles, and blue plastic trash cans at the beach, comes an extraordinary scene of a black man holding a black boy’s body on top of the ocean, the camera lowered until it is fractionally submerged, enclosing the baptism by swimming lesson in pale sky and rolling water.

“So your name is Blue?” the boy, Little, asks after he has learned that he can be free in the waves. “Naw,” Juan, his savior, answers. He has told the troubled boy that black people are everywhere, that we were the first people on this planet. He is from Cuba, where there are also black people, though you wouldn’t know it—to look at the Cubans in Miami, he means. Juan tells Little that he used to be a wild little shorty like him, running around with no shoes when the moon was out. An old woman saw him “cutting a fool”—it’s not always possible to get what he’s saying—and told him that in the moonlight “black boys look blue.”

Moonlight is a love story in a place where we don’t usually find a gay one and at the same time it’s very different from other black films set in the ’hood, mostly because of what it doesn’t focus on. We don’t hear gunfire and there is no pounding soundtrack, just as it has no bohemian artists or middle-class triumphalism about family. It’s about a homo thug from that street world of the fatherless where masculine pride is supposedly all and tests of manhood are brutal. But Moonlight isn’t trying to be realistic about anything, even as it confounds what we expect from stories about young black men, starting with the film’s texture, its intricate soundtrack, tantric pace, and beauty frame by frame.

An elliptical growing-up-lonely story, the film concentrates on three stages in a gay man’s life—the chapter titles say, “i. Little,” “ii. Chiron,” “iii. Black”—each episode separated by a decade or so. The film begins maybe in the early 1990s, when “Little” is a bullied, neglected schoolboy. Juan, a drug boss, rescues him from a boarded-up apartment in a block of “dope holes.” A solitary kid tormented between school and a home where he is not wanted is drawn to a protective stranger. But even as a refuge from Little’s crack-addicted mother, the nobility of surrogate fatherhood doesn’t overcome what could be called modern puritanical society’s disquiet at the homoerotic scene of a dark-skinned black man cradling his miniature in the vast blue.

In Jenkins’s film, the homoerotic moves the story, including the quickly established bond between the physically powerful man and the vulnerable child. “What’s a faggot?” “A word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan answers. And it might say more about us than it does about the film that we are surprised that a gangsta character gives a child a thoughtful explanation. Or maybe Juan is touched by the boy’s suffering when he asks, “Am I a faggot?” After all, we know nothing about Juan other than what we have seen. His girlfriend is gorgeous. He tells Little that it’s okay to be gay, he’ll know when he knows, and he doesn’t have to know now, but he can’t let anyone call him “a faggot,” in the same spirit as teaching him not to sit with his back to a door—a call to Little’s sense of self-preservation.

The film may not depict the territorial violence of the crack trade, but it does not shy away from showing the effects over time of both the drug epidemic and the war on drugs in a black community such as Liberty City, in northeast Miami. When we first see Little’s mother, she is wearing a badge and maybe the uniform of a low-level health care worker. She goes downhill fast. Little comes home to find that the TV has vanished. In one scene of no dialogue, we see him pour into a tub a pot of water he has heated on the stove. He takes a bath in dishwashing liquid. He must like the suds, and ignores the bar of soap. In another silent scene, we don’t hear what his mother—played with grit by Naomie Harris—is screaming at him; we only see her terrible face and his expression of bottomless misery.

But the film’s originality isn’t just in what Jenkins turns the volume way down on. It’s what he makes room for. Little has a cute buddy, Kevin, who tries to look out for him. Kevin advises him that in order to get people to stop picking on him, it is not enough not to be soft, he has to show them that he isn’t. Kevin also vouches for him when Little happens on Kevin with four other boys engaged in a schoolyard rite: comparing dicks. We see Little dancing seriously by himself among other girls and boys, all dressed alike, in some school exercise. But on the playing field he is the boy outside the scrum, the boy backing away from the rag ball.

In the second episode, “Chiron,” the boy and his mother live in a different, much more untidy apartment and he can’t defend her reputation as the crackhead whore in the street. She blackmails him out of the money Juan’s girlfriend gives him. Juan is dead. We last see him hanging his head in shame after Little has walked out because Juan admitted that he sold drugs to people like his mother. We assume his death was drug-related, though nothing of the kind is suggested in the film. We know from his girlfriend that he and Little remained close, after all, and it seems clear that he didn’t put the boy to work for him.

Little is by now in high school, still bullied, but valiantly insisting on his given name, Chiron. Kevin is still cute. He gets detention for having sex with a girl in a stairwell, a session he describes to Chiron in raunchy, turned-on slang. Chiron has a wet dream about Kevin banging a girl doggy-style at the beach. “You all right, Black?” Kevin turns and smiles at him in the dream. It is Kevin who gives Chiron the nickname “Black.” One night when he himself has fled to the beach, Chiron meets Kevin; they share a blunt, have sympathetic but awkward conversation: “You cry?” “It makes me want to.” The kiss is tender. Kevin undoes Chiron’s belt and gives him a hand job, then wipes his palm in the sand. He doesn’t ask for anything reciprocal. Or what he needed was a chance to heal or at least comfort someone else as lonely. Kevin drives Chiron home and they part in a democratic handshake.

But the next day he has to beat the shit out of Chiron or the pack will beat the shit out of him. Jenkins is all too good at indicating what a futile place the classroom has become at this income level, however prepared the teacher is to explain the structure of DNA. Chiron soaks his face in a sink of ice water and when he goes back to school rather satisfyingly clobbers the instigator of the beating with a chair. He looks out at Kevin from the squad car about to take him off to the urban black youth’s fate of being sucked into the penal system. The sounds we hear are those of an orchestra tuning up.

Kevin, the love Chiron seeks and finds, the boy who had the imagination to show him physical affection, tells him at one point that he got sent up for some stupid shit, the same stupid shit they all got sent up for. Once again we take that to mean a reference to the drug business. Incarceration has taken place entirely offscreen. Yet the film conveys how pervasive the justice system is in black lives.

David Bornfriend/A24
Mahershala Ali as Juan and Alex Hibbert as Little in Moonlight

When we see Chiron next, in the third episode, more or less in the recent past, he is now known as “Black” and has become, like Juan, a big, intimidating drug dealer, a taciturn man with abs to commit suicide over, in a subdued vintage car. “At some point you got to decide for yourself who you going to be,” Juan told him. “Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” It’s interesting that as much of an outcast as Chiron is shown to have been when growing up, Jenkins does not make him an arty type. He has no hobbies. In some ways, he seems harder and more detached as a drug boss than Juan was. He lives in Atlanta, gets a call, and agrees to see his mother. She is living and working in a rehab facility; we’re not sure where. She asks for and receives his forgiveness.

Another call turns out to be from Kevin, who has tracked him down. He apologizes for “all the shit what happened.” Both actors can wait out a silence. The camera can just sit and sit on their faces and we are getting a great deal, reading things into their changing expressions. Kevin works as a cook and waiter in a diner in Miami that has a jukebox of oldies. Some dude played a song that made him think of Chiron.

In the very beginning, even before the credits, in the dark, we hear the ocean and then under that a song by the Jamaican Boris Gardiner from the 1970s, “Every Nigger Is a Star,” used in a Blaxploitation film of the period. The song was rediscovered by hip-hop artists in the 1990s and turns out to be playing on the radio of a blue Chevy Impala we see driven by a tough-looking dude. That rough word in a gentle ballad—this sets up the film’s aesthetic, which is to find new relations for contradictory, seemingly incompatible elements, images, or ideas. Jenkins’s unfiltered background buzz has a Robert Altman–like quality, and several scenes play out in the quiet of the ’hood, sirens and dogs far away, or scenes are filled with ocean breeze. Passages from Mozart’s Laudete Dominum play over a boys’ soccer game, and Nicholas Britell’s score has a classical aura.

The song Kevin ends up playing for Black, his lost love, is a throwback, “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis. It’s all over YouTube now, as is analysis of the film and its codes. “It seems like a mighty long time/Chu bop chu bop, my baby….” The song has been performed by other singers down through the years, but it would have been an oldie when Kevin and Black were teenagers, if either of them heard it back then. We have no way of knowing. There is no social life in Chiron’s adolescence, only dysfunction. But the nostalgic tune—from black life before the crack plague—uncovers what is between them, because theirs is such an old-fashioned love story. If Black has denied himself, then the love he accepts in the end was worth the wait.

The film has music that belongs to the characters, and music that belongs to the film, to Jenkins’s choices, a reminder that the film is being carefully composed. (You can’t stop thinking how beautifully Jenkins’s black and brown cast photographs against the colors of Florida and his night walls; just as there is much to admire in every actor’s performance in the film.) But one song totally outside Black’s head is most important to the entire enterprise. After he has forgiven his mother, after we have seen Kevin smoking on a dreamy, slow-motion break at work, after Black has woken up to find that he has had a wet dream, at his age, about Kevin, he hits the open road.

We see his car from slightly above, on a straight highway that stretches into the distance. The music we hear is Caetano Veloso singing “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” an homage to love’s loss. The song has been recorded by several artists and been used in a number of films. But if a gay version exists, this is it. Veloso’s performance features in a film by Pedro Almodóvar, whose films about men in love with men were groundbreaking. It is exhilarating, sad as the song is meant to be, because in that moment Moonlight leaps free of genre.

It’s somewhat analogous to a problem that used to come up in black literature. For so long, the struggle was to be able to tell the truth about the black experience, and those writers who felt constrained by such a responsibility seemed to risk committing betrayal of some deep kind. On the other hand, remember the powerful messages offered by, say, Boyz n the Hood or La Haine concerning state-sponsored violence and survival. Maybe the theme of the black ghetto as cauldron of danger took over, like gangster rap seeming to push aside other styles of hip-hop. How we cheered gun-toting Omar in The Wire, because he was Robin Hood, righteous and gay.

Maybe that point has been made and a film can use the same elements to somewhat different purposes. It’s no surprise that Moonlight is being interpreted as an exploration of masculine identity, a questioning of whether traditional definitions of manhood are part of the trap for black men. But Black learned that in order to survive he had to be hard. He tells Kevin, still attractive, that he tried not to think about his early days and rebuilt himself from the ground up.

Kevin, like Black’s mother, expresses disapproval that he is still in the streets. As pleased as he is that scrawny Chiron has exploded into Trevante Rhodes, he is contemptuous of muscular Black’s gold “fronts,” ’hood-status mouth guards. Kevin is comfortable saying that he never was anything, never did anything he really wanted to do; he did what others expected of him. He has a terrible job, but he has his son and none of the worry of his bad days, and lives near the water, and feels he has a real life. He never really answers the question of why he called Black out of the blue after so many years, and neither can Black say when Kevin asks him why he just got on the highway and came all the way down there.

Moonlight isn’t saying that you can be sensitive and still a man, gay and still a man. It isn’t reassuring anyone about manhood. Black conformed; he and Kevin both did. Life offered them nothing else. Be hard or die. Meanwhile, they don’t lead double lives; they are not on the down low, hiding the fact that they have sex with men. They aren’t coming out; they are being themselves, or are on their way to becoming complete. They are each other’s escape, redemption. Just as the black struggle in the arts was to get the social truth in print, on the screen, on stage, so, too, for gay liberation the sexual openness counted. Though what will happen between Kevin and Black is not in doubt, the audience is not invited to the consummation. The camera lingers on them looking at each other in Kevin’s kitchen, then on Kevin cradling Black in the shadows. They look like they are in the remains of an embrace.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in order to show a black woman capable of romantic love. Black women had long been slandered and libeled in American popular culture as libidinous, close to the earth in their appetites, and therefore promiscuous. The white novelist Julia Peterkin won a Pulitzer Prize for a novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, in which the black heroine has eleven children by seven different men. Hurston wanted to say that her heroine was capable of emotional refinement, aware of her feelings, and precisely in those settings where black life was supposed to be animalistic, too basic for reflection on the self.

In a similar way, Moonlight bestows the capability of feeling romantic love onto a figure that has long been a symbol of predatory sexuality: the big, bad, black male. White fear of violent retribution on the part of the enslaved lies behind the stereotypes of black men as either beasts or clowns, studs who needed to be watched or eunuchs who could be trusted. Black confesses to Kevin that he is the only man who has ever touched him and he’s never really been with anyone. His chastity is the essence of the film’s romance.