My wife had one major concern going into Moonlight. “Is it going to be ‘gay Precious‘?”
For the record, I was a fan of Precious, the Oscar nominated story of an obese black teenager who survives horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her family. But I knew what my wife meant. Often the films, books, and works of art centered around black people that receive the most attention and critical acclaim in the mainstream, are the ones, like Precious, that depict perverse scenarios or grotesque suffering. What arouses suspicion is not that such works, like Precious, or the novels of Toni Morrison, or the art of Kara Walker, are less than excellent; they typically deserve all the praise they receive. It is that, considered as a group, they tend to paint a unified portrait that is less than pretty. Where are all the portraits of black people who are not being sexually abused, beaten, enslaved, or all of the above?
There are two things at play here: One is that the stories we see promoted in the media shape our conscious and subconscious sense of how the world should behave, what is natural and what is unnatural. The amazingly common trope of the black character dying before the end of the movie, typically in noble self-sacrifice to save white friends, may seem superficially flattering, but the not-so-hidden assumptions about whose lives matter more are not flattering at all. Melodramas about gay characters who meet unsavory ends allow audiences to congratulate themselves on their open-minded sympathy for such people, while still reinforcing a message of the dire consequences for transgressing sexual boundaries. Meanwhile the overwhelming common media depictions of black people as violent criminals, and/or sexually rapacious prostitutes and pimps have often led to harmful, and sometimes deadly assumptions about who is dangerous, and who is sexually available.
The other factor in what art about minorities gets attention is that we are all fascinated by the bizarre, the distasteful and the perverse. But that does not mean we want to identify with it. When I see a story about the “Other,” a person who is visibly and identifiably not me, I can enjoy or be moved or thrilled by their shamefulness, or their tragedy, or their sickness and wrongness, yet all without ever having the uncomfortable sense that character could be me –or that this is how people see me and people like me. If that person is black, or Asian, or an albino, or disabled, or unusually short or tall, or gay, and if I am not any of those things, then I know the story is about someone else, and I can enjoy it in all its ugliness.
That is what makes Moonlight, and its history-making Oscar win for best picture such a marvel. Judged by summary alone the movie –the story of a bullied black gay boy, raised by a drug addict, and mentored by a drug dealer –seems to fit right in with the kind of art described above. And yet, the actual movie, as experienced onscreen, eschews lurid melodrama in favor of vividly observed and mostly quiet scenes of acutely felt realism; and invites us to identify with its main character rather than distance ourselves from him. It challenges boundaries, and defies stereotypes, and the fact that it received mainstream acclaim at such a high level says good things about the evolution of our collective mindset –at a time when encouraging news is so badly needed.
The key probably lies in the movie’s genesis. The screenplay is a semi-autobiographical retelling of the childhood of its original author, an acclaimed gay black playwright, while the movie itself is the creation of a straight black director, who, like the central character, grew up in the same housing project at the same time as the the screenwriter, and also with a drug-addicted mother. The partnership came about because the director wanted to do a film about his own life, but only found a voice to do so by bringing the playwright’s life –so alike, and yet so different –to the screen.
The film is filled with challenges to our preconceptions and stereotypes, not as a provocation or as an academic exercise, but as a reminder of life and reality beyond the cardboard cliches. The reality of the main character’s homosexuality is a dominant theme of the movie, and yet sex is almost entirely absent. In addition, nothing in the character’s portrayal is visibly effeminate or stereotypical. Although his mother and his classmates refer mockingly to his gay traits, all we, the audience, see is a child who is intensely quiet and internal, distant and uncomfortable around his peers.
Chiron (the protagonist) gains a mentor early in the movie, a drug dealer who is intelligent and nurturing –and notably non-homophobic. Primed by countless previous melodramas, we the audience steel ourselves for a molestation that never occurs. Instead, the dealer remains nearly saintly, with just enough of a reminder of the human cost of his trade to keep him grounded in reality.
Chiron’s only friend his own age is a boy who is his opposite: self-assured, popular, tough enough not to get picked on, and seemingly confident in his own complex sexuality. The only gap in his armor is his too-obvious affection for the terminally uncool Chiron, a weakness that the neighborhood bully scents out and exploits, leading to a moment of violence and seeming tragedy.
Had the movie ended there, this film could sit solidly in the tragic melodrama genre. But it is the movie’s third act that really makes it stand apart, as we see the characters move into an adulthood that is as inevitable as it is surprising. Chiron, having finally internalized the lesson of toughness both his friend and his tormentor tried to force on him, remakes himself into the image of his old mentor, and finds it a surprisingly good fit. As with his mentor, drug dealing affords him an entry into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle –probably the only such entry available to him –complete, ironically, with the means to secure his mother treatment for her addiction. Shielded by an adopted persona, he shows an ease and level of comfort unimaginable for his younger self. In an understated moment of the film, he effortlessly reverses the banter aimed at him by one of his flunkies. The younger man is probably straight, but suddenly he becomes the one who has to defend his lack of a girlfriend. It is a flawless handling of the kind of social quandary that drives teenagers to desperation and despair. Yet inside, Chiron is as internal and as alone as ever.
Without ruining any aspects of the ending, the movie is not a tragedy, and ends not with more violence, or melodrama. Nor is it a self-congratulatory fable, ending in unambiguous triumph or romantic bliss. Instead, it resolves, quietly and naturally, into a mood of healing and hope –a good place for us all to inhabit. Go see it.