Moonlight: a sumptuous fairy tale of the black gay experience
REVIEW by DREW ROWSOME
Once again the Academy Awards have snuck up on me and I'm busily trying to view all the worthy films I missed. Top of my list is Moonlight, the great gay hope of the group.
It's easy to see why Moonlight is nominated for eight awards and has become a hit as well as a, for the most part, critical darling. It is an old-fashioned love story wrapped in social conscientiousness and artily shot in contrasting vibrant vivid colours and sumptuous pools of darkness. Fated to be together from childhood, the central couple suffer, are torn apart and then, against the odds and their own reticence, find each other again. The twist is that the couple are gay and black, two oppressed people for the price of one.
There are moments of extraordinary beauty, sheer visual poetry, in Moonlight and the ending packs an emotional wallop that is all the more devastating for being understated. The acting is, for the most part, heightened naturalism and it is impossible not to be invested in all the characters, none of whom are simply good or evil: there are many gradations and contradictions to be explored. I can't comment on the verisimilitude of the depiction of this version of the black experience, but the gay content rang painfully true. With one exception.
While I fervently believe in romance, true love and soulmates - especially in context of a film, and Moonlight could easily become an uplifting Disney cartoon musical with the removal of a few uses of the n-word and the f-word(s) - there is one plot point that pushed me out of the film and into disbelief. The two teenagers Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), share a furtive romantic moment on the beach that concludes with a hand job. Wiping the cum from his hand by sliding it through the sand is a nice realistic touch, but then the gritty becomes a fairy tale.
One hand job and Chiron, whose sexual fantasies we see and who has been branded and then somewhat accepted himself as gay, never touches another man until the pair meet again in middle age. This would be dubious at the best of times but fantasy fiction when Chiron has had a big coming out/closet door smashing moment, and spent time in prison where he is hardened into the Trevante Rhodes incarnation of Chiron, named "Black." While the character of Chiron has been established as inarticulate, shy and maddeningly passive, Rhodes is a breathtaking specimen - all abs and muscle that the camera lingers on in a voyeuristically potent combination of lust and fear - and, even interpreting his fabulous physique as circuit boy/sex avoidance armour, it is only in a heterosexual-pandering version of the gay world that Chiron wouldn't have had at least a handful of hand jobs with the offer of much more.
That said, the fumbling reunion is marvelously and subtly done with stellar performances from Rhodes and Andre Holland. It is an edge of one's seat with tears coming scene. Of course the actors have not done it on their own. Director/writer Barry Jenkins has laid a solid groundwork with symbols and themes - water, fire, a golden crown-shaped air freshener, addiction, parental failure, the colour blue, the balance between guilt and culpability and survival, and, of course, moonlight - to build to this moment. And there has been heartfelt and strong supporting work done by Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris. And it is a stroke of genius to start with Chiron as a child, nicknamed "Little," played simply and with heartbreaking vulnerability by Alex Hibbert so that we grow with him and identify strongly.
It's still a rarity to see a gay love story at the center of a mainstream-aimed film. Sadly, it's also still a rarity to see a black love story at the center of a mainstream-aimed film. For that reason alone, Moonlight is a wonderful ambitious undertaking that would deserve to be rewarded if it were a fraction as good as it is. That it makes the story as well as the characters individuals who resonate universally, it is a stellar achievement. That it made me wince in anger and recognition before finally shedding tears of joy, it is a film that should not be missed.