Moonlight is a film that is filled with grace, but it is not easily translatable into words. Words do not come easily within the film either. There is no breakthrough moment that somehow makes sense of all the pain that the protagonist Chiron experienced throughout his young life: his absent father, his mother who spirals into a crack-fuelled hell, his own sexual secret, mercilessly exposed by the cruelty of his peers. All this suffering demands some redemption, but there are no words that can tell it.

As others have observed, the film works out Chiron’s redemption—his sexual and personal homecoming—through imagery. The safety of strong paternal arms bearing him up and then letting him go; the rare bounty of food served only to him; the airy flight of fresh linen in his first real home, and the ecstatic hand clenched in sand during his first sexual encounter. More particularly, there are images that ebb and flow in this film which form its tidal constant: these are moonlight, evening, dark (and blue) flesh—blackness.

Chiron’s own silence echoes the impenetrability of the darkness that surrounds him. When he speaks there is little by way of personal resolve or evidence of bildung; and when others speak to him, there is also little by way of assurance that the fragile bonds that words manage to forge will persist. Indeed, words and assurance are washed away as surely as the debris on the surf-battered shore. Moonlight also passes over in silence the pivotal moments of loss in Chiron’s life, in part because they are so constant and so inevitable. Surely a critical moment in the young boy’s life was the death of his surrogate father, Juan, but we only see its aftermath, because Juan’s murder was as predictable and as banal as most children’s school plays. We are also—for the most part—spared the gruesome moments of violence directed toward him by the school bullies or at the hand of his mother. We only see these incidents through the shadows they cast on the boy/man’s beautiful and forlorn face. “In moonlight black boys look blue,” Juan recalled these words—spoken by a childhood matriarch—to Chiron. It is through the exploration of the shadows that we see why black boys look so blue. We also see how beautiful their blueness can be as it is refracted through recognition and the longing of another black man.

It is an odd habit to think of grace as light and never as darkness. Christian imagery trades almost exclusively on divine light much to its moral peril and its historical shame. But Moonlight disrupts this imagery and inverts it. The light is no friend to Chiron. We see him run from his attackers in the blinding light of day, in the threadbare and overexposed terrain of tenement housing. We see his mother—high on crack—berate and expel him from his home long before evening. We wince at his vulnerability in a fluorescent classroom where no amount of authority or structure can shield him. And we mourn over that glimmer of light from his grill and dashboard crown as the adult Chiron postures unconvincingly as a drug lord.

In his essay, “What is the Contemporary?” Giorgio Agamben discusses the artist as one who is able to disclose the profound urgency of their time and of its stories by working not through revelation, but concealment:

The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows of those lights, of their intimate obscurity. … Darkness is something that—more than any light—turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time. [1]

Moonlight’s writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins have afforded us a rare glimpse of the shadows of our own time—of black kids in difficult neighborhoods, with desperate mothers and broken, violent peers. And without dwelling on it, Moonlight situates this bleakness within a hidden and more malevolent horizon: mass incarceration, poverty and systemic racism. But it does this only obliquely—as is often noted, there are no white people in the film. This is more than a political statement; it is an aesthetic choice, because this film seeks to dwell not on the light, but on the shadows.

Within the shadows, one is afforded a glimpse of a boy/man, Chiron, whose life is irreducibly singular. If a story like this is told at all it is generally characterized as desperate, poor and tragic. But Moonlight, thankfully, has offered another telling. With Chiron we come to recognize and to long for the beauty of blackness. And it is in this blackness, under the moon’s silent beam, that even those whose world is as different from Chiron’s as day is to night can rest for a time in its grace.

 

 

[1] Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, trans. David Nishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 45.

4 thoughts

  1. I worry about the appropriateness of a straight, white woman offering commentary upon the extraordinary and visionary movie that is “Moonlight.” How will my appropriations of this film distort (yet again) black and queer life?

    Your writerly worries help with our readerly worries as well. So thank you for your self identities to recognize how in the beautiful darknesses some of us may not see Chiron as black and as queer as we need to understand him. (My own confession, as a cis gender straight white man, is that there’s comfort in how Catherine Keller gets us to “consider four possible folds, not to be confused with stages, of feminist theology: ,i.the gender fold, the color-fold, the queer fold, and the manifold. Each involves a certain undoing of gender, indeed a negation of ‘woman,’ in the interest of elusive affirmation.” Of course, when she refers to “the queer fold,” she is not talking about a gay man; and yet her point is that there is intersectionality that undoes how any of us presumes to know anything about anybody.) Thank you for writing your beautiful review of the deeply wonderful film.

    1. Thank you very much, J.K. Gayle! This is very helpful. I believe that art is uniquely capable of affording us glimpses into worlds we would otherwise never know. I am so deeply grateful for this surprising and magnificent film!

  2. I watched the movie unable to hear much of the dialogue. My hearing disability, though abated quite a bit by a hearing aid in one ear and cochlear implant for the other, still mutes some voices more than others. Black men are the hardest people for me to hear. I know this so I try harder in day to day life but that works less well in movies. So I had to try harder by studying, really swimming in the faces. I left the theater knowing I had seen an extraordinary work of art. That didn’t mean I understood it all, I didn’t. But I understand more now because of your essay. Thank you.

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