Moonlight ★★★½

[7]

Sometimes when you see a film at a festival, in the midst of a bunch of other films (and great exhaustion), it's easy to miss certain subtleties. I came away from Moonlight at TIFF not with an unfavo(u)rable impression, but not exactly over the moon either, and I felt a bit awkward about that. At the time, I discussed Moonlight with Mike D'Angelo, whose lukewarm opinion of the film has opened him up to a number of wholly inappropriate attacks, and I found myself in agreement with some of his key points, although we differed on shades of emphasis. Was it plausible that Little, Chiron, and Black would all form a single subject across time, outside of the contrivance of a play or a film script? At what point did the basic Aristotelian unity of character break down? (And this was not even getting into Jenkins' rather broad depiction of the two women characters in Moonlight, who exemplify the good mother / bad mother archetypes until such time as the bad mother is redeemed.)

But as I said above, I think that I went in expected one particular kind of film, and on second viewing I was able to see more clearly what Moonlight actually is.

There is a bias, which is partly a cognitive expectation based on genre and viewing history, but it is partly based on racism, and I am in no way immune to this, sad to say. Most of us (viewers, critics, white people, but I'd claim not just white people) have been trained to expect a certain sociological realism when it comes to films about African-Americans.

Now, I am not a complete idiot, and I could see from Barry Jenkins' direction, camerawork and use of editing (particularly silence and gaps in diegetic sound) that Moonlight is not a work of realism. However, there are moments in the film, such as the kitchen table discussion between Little (Alex Hibbert), Juan (Mahershala Ali), and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), that are both performed and shot well within the codes of cinematic realism. But a scene like that is abutted by something like the swimming seqence which, while hardly the stuff of fantasy, operates much more within the register of a gestural, French "poetic realism" -- the tradition that reaches from Cocteau to Truffaut.

This movement between straightforward American indie realism and a much more abstract set of procedures is Jenkins' dominant approach in Moonlight, and I suspect this is precisely because of the assumptions I referred to above -- the fundamentally racist assumptions to which I fell prey, and that in other contexts I have worked to critique. Dominant media typically allows only one set of images for "the black male," and that is a denotative, denominative approach, a way of making images that pins identity down, limits it, that is tantamount to surveillance. "What are those bodies up to?" The fact that so much independent media, even when made by African-American artists, redoubles this mode, is the deeper tragedy.

So I think one way to approach Moonlight, both in its formal organization and in its characterization (of its main protagonist and the men around him), is to think of it as a moving compendium of possible African-American male identities. After all, is there a contemporary subject position that is more overdetermined? (Which is theory-speak for asking, does society fuck with, murder, lock up, or just limit the possibilities of anyone else more than black men?) Moonlight explores black masculinity, of course, partly but not exclusively through the evolving figure of a gay man in a society where "being hard" might be the only thing that saves you. But that's the sociology talking again.

There is a semiotic element to Moonlight as well, one that explains why its main character may at times seem like a unified individual, and at other times may not. Again, realism is not the order of the day here. Rather, at the center of this film is a black body who is being labeled, branded, told who and what he is. Even his "names" emphasize this lack of agency. First he is "Little;" toward the end (as Trevante Rhodes), he is "Black." Even his real name, Chiron, although pronounced shy-RONE, looks like KY-ron, the naming labels that bodies are given on news footage -- the ultimate reductive stamp for a black body, aside from an inmate number.

None of these identities are "real," although each bears some proximity to the man on whom they are hung. When Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is given the nickname "Black" by his high school friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), someone with whom he will have his first intimate moment, that naming is an attempt at singling Chiron out as special, renaming him precisely because his own name had become degraded. The fact that Chiron takes this on as his own name as an adult, for his post-prison identity, is telling. It is a sign that autonomy is beginning, even though it remains a work in progress.

I think the same could be said about Moonlight itself. Barry Jenkins never breaks with traditional realism entirely. This results in people like me initially misreading the film, and we'll all need to be more careful. (We'll have time; I think this is going to be a modern classic.) However, it is the poetry that reflects liberation, and the success of Moonlight seems to hold out the promise of more African-American poetic narrative cinema.

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