Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harrie, Jonelle Monae
Honestly, when I purchased my ticket to see Moonlight, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that it was a coming of age story set against the backdrop of Miami’s drug stricken projects. I knew that the focus of the story, Chiron, experiences a consensual homosexual encounter. But I didn’t know if this meant it would be in the vain of great racial commentary films, like John Singleton’s Boys in the Hood, or maybe it would be more akin to Kimberly Pierce’s tragic Boys Don’t Cry, with its queer sexual awakening within a hostile community. I’m surprised, having now seen Moonlight, that the film that it most reminded me of was Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Moonlight is a brilliant film, wonderfully acted, that tells the story of Chiron (pronounced SHY-rone, undermining any attempt to draw parallels to the Centaur of ancient Greek mythology). The film moves through three different chapters in Chrions life marked by three names the he identifies with. As a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is found hiding from bullies by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes the boy in and provides a refuge from Chiron’s emotionally abusive, drug addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). As a teen, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) finds himself again being bullied, but takes momentary refuge in a brief relationship with his one friend Kevin (Jharel Jerome). When Kevin turns on Chiron under pressure from Chiron’s bullies, Chiron retalliates and is sent to juvenile detention. Finally we see Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as a man in his mid twenties, inhabiting all the trappings that his drug dealing lifestyle demands. In this final act, we see him reconcile with his mother, now in rehab, and Kevin.
From the beginning we know that Chiron is out of place in his environment. He rarely speaks, appears to have no friends, and has a tragic relationship with his mother. When he connects with Juan, we see Chiron find the kind of nurturing relationship that we would hope for a young boy. Juan genuinely cares for him, feeds him, teaches him to swim. We know from the beginning that Juan is a drug dealer, and the disconnect between Juan’s concern for Chiron and his drug dealing to Chiron’s mother comes to a head when the two forces in Chiron’s life confront each other and Juan is left speechless in the face of his own contradictions. He cares for Chiron, but isn’t about to stop selling drugs to the boy’s mother.
But why not? What are we to take from this inherent contradiction in someone we as an audience have generally come to like? Social commentary? Perhaps. Perhaps we nod our heads and recognize that lack of opportunities and material necessity that leaves an intelligent and compassionate man like Juan to deal drugs. It’s a fine lesson, but I don’t think it’s the lesson Chiron takes away. Instead everything about this film points toward the boy’s realization of inauthenticity as a survival tool and the toll it takes on those who employ it.
What does it mean to be authentic? To understand what’s happening here, Sartre’s concept of “bad faith” is helpful. Briefly, Sartre identifies the human condition as one of absolute freedom to decide the meaning and purpose of one’s own existence. Of course there are things we can’t decide about ourselves (our inherited socio economic status, for example) but within the context of these inherited facts about our lives, facticity, Sartre argues that it is the nature of human consciousness that we are free to decide their meaning.
“Bad faith,” comes about when we effectively decide not to decide, and instead adopt the trappings associated with conformist roles about who we are in the spaces we inhabit. We shirk the responsibility to decide for ourselves the meaning and purpose of our lives, and thus turn ourselves into objects, playing out roles assigned by others. Sartre’s example is that of a waiter whose every decision is colored by what people expect a waiter to be. The waiter, like the tables or the food, has become a mere object for the restaurant patron.
While we don’t know much about Juan’s story, Chiron is constantly punished for being who he is. Consequently, we find him in the end adopting a persona and playing a role. In the third act, the now adult Chiron has adopted the nickname “Black” which Kevin gave him years earlier and he initially didn’t like. He wears “fronts” on his teeth and in his car we see the same crown air freshener that Juan had sported years earlier. When he reconnects with Kevin, Kevin notices the person Chiron has become and flat out says, “This isn’t you” and we in the audience, can’t help but agree.
But this isn’t the story of a sweet natured child who, by way of his environment and encounters with the criminal justice system, becomes a hardened criminal. The criminality of Chiron’s life is cleverly left o the viewers imagination. This is not a story about drug dealers. Instead, it’s the story of a boy lost in his effort to become a man and deciding to trade his own agency for the convenient and even necessary expectations of a culture fundamentally adrift in violence.
We know already that Juan is not authentic from his encounter with Chiron’s mother who confronts him with the performative contradiction of his life. But Juan understands his own bad faith, even if he seems powerless to stop it. The tenderness with which he responds to young Chiron’s concerns about sexuality as well as Juan’s admonitions that Chiron decide for himself who he is, let us believe that he might have been successful in leading Chiron to an authentic life. However, by the second act, Juan is no longer around, having died in circumstances that aren’t explained, and Chiron is swept up into the violence too often confused with masculinity.
For a different viewer, with a different background, the story of Moonlight might resonate in ways specific to race and sexuality, for me, as a heterosexual, white male trying to raise a son of my own, the lesson is more far reaching. We are awash in a cultural moment where men have decided that anger and violence are a hallmark of masculinity, putting us at odds with our own ethical sensibilities regarding the treatment of others, especially women.
This view of masculinity, however, (the doltish beast, anti-intellectual, unconcerned with others, whose primary purpose is accumulating women and providing security), is mere caricature, but one so saturating that men have taken it as guidebook. This caricature is played out again and again in pop culture from Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford in the 70s until it moves from being merely cartoonish to literal cartoon with Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin.
Moonlight supplants these predominantly white memes of failed masculinity with the images common in impoverished black communities, drug dealers, bullies, gang bangers, but the result is the same. Men trapped in inauthenticity, playing out the only roles available to emulate. Thus the final shot of the movie is two men embracing in the quiet privacy of a darkened room. And while we might expect Kevin and Chiron to spark up a romance, the final embrace is not one of joy, but of one man consoling another in quiet recognition of their shared alienation from their lives.
I began by saying Moonlight reminded me of Lost in Translation, and this is why. A final sympathetic embrace between characters that we know can never quit lives of bad faith no matter how much we pull for them. Really though, such scenes point back to us. A film like this is not mere spectacle to absorb (a fear I had as I watched this film in a theater full of white faces), but it is rather an invitation to self-reflection. Is my life mere caricature? Am I only living out the expectations of others? To what extent have I bought into a toxic version of masculinity? Is it even possible to break out of that? The more often we ask such questions, the better off we will be and the more authentic our lives will become.