Cinematic Releases: The Prison of Masculinity: Moonlight (2016)

Every once in awhile there comes a film that completely envelops me and allows me to enter the mindset of a radically different individual. I forget about camera work, lighting, editing, and cinematography and just live in another world for ninety minutes. Moonlight is not just a cinematic experience, it's a revelation and an affirmation of love and life. One of the hallmarks of great writing and directing is the ability for a film to make an audience member empathize with a character that they do not have anything in common with. While their lifestyle may be alien to them, things like suffering, fear, regret, compassion, and love are all things that the human race experiences in solidarity regardless of where they come from.

In Moonlight we follow Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a young black child growing up in a dangerous and impoverished Miami community. He is viciously bullied by his peers due to his small stature (he is nicknamed "Little") and his meekness. In the code of the hood, any perceived weakness is preyed upon with no mercy and Chiron cannot defend himself against the onslaught. While running away from a group of kids trying to harm him, Chiron hides in an abandoned crack house. He is found by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes him under his wing. This sets the tone for the entire rest of the film as the narrative checks in on Chiron during different periods of his life--as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and finally as an adult (Trevante Rhodes).

It is not talked about often, but there is an alarming percentage of the black community, especially the males, that are openly homophobic. Black men are taught to be hyper masculine and tough and any show of tenderness or emotion is seen as a defect. Though the "angry black man" stereotype is not always true, there is this cultural push for men (and not just black men) to be the aggressive alpha male and not allow anyone to become really intimate with them. Chiron struggles with this because he has budding homosexual tendencies that he is deathly afraid of and that he does not fully understand. His own drug addicted mother calls him a faggot at home and his schoolmates antagonize him and beat him up constantly. He has no safe place to call his own. This is the dark and ironic underbelly of an oppressed group who is, in turn, destroying their own members.

Chiron does have one ally throughout all of this, his affable and charismatic friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The film explores the complicated and sometimes fragile nature of their alliance as each boy tries to find his place in the social ladder. While Moonlight is about being gay in a hostile environment, that is just the surface level. Deeper down it is about how humans need to feel loved and have affection no matter the sex or race. When you continuously attack someone they have no choice but to adopt defensive measures to try and survive.

The look of this film is sumptuous and somewhat mellow. I loved the camera work as it feels like its own entity, swirling around in circles or cropping up in unusual angles. The lighting and the color use is masterful with stark contrast between the bright white concrete ghetto and the soft pastel lights of the more intimate moments. Director Barry Jenkins was able to coax amazing performances out of all three actors that portrayed Chiron. They all share the same mannerisms and speaking style and they flow seamlessly from one to the next gradually adding layers until the culmination of adult Chiron, who is now referred to as "Black". Nicolas Britell's score is excellent and understated, an intoxicating combo of wavering strings and trap music. Chiron is both of these elements--a delicate beautiful core covered by a shield of harshness and sheer physical prowess.

Chiron was a figure in Greek Mythology, a powerful centaur who chose to be a gentle and intelligent healer instead of a fighter like his brethren. He was known as the "wounded healer" because ironically he was able to heal everyone but himself. The parallel between this mythical version of Chiron and the film version is apparent as Chiron tries to help everyone but himself and suffers for it. As the film comes to a close though, the audience gets to vicariously experience his confusion and pain and ultimately his redemption. That is why this film is important because it lets people glimpse into other lives and realities which in turn enables them to internalize those feelings and learn something. We are all Chiron.


-Michelle Kisner