By Edson Burton
“Why was he so angry?” I asked myself midway through the BBC adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel NW.
A slim contorted Black youth face set in permanent grimace, de riguer hood up despite the summer heat, fatally wounds another Black man on the slightest provocation. The blot of red expands along the white top as the victim recoils in shock, sinks to the pavement, bleeds out. His assailant is gone – his rage released.
I assumed this act, this drama, would take us on a journey into the internal world of this killer. Not so. He remains that ‘menace to society’ throughout the show. We are left with what society already accepts and what the screen has presented, a pumped up ball of Black rage without explanation – or rather the undeniable suggestion that he is a product of the ‘Hood.’
“We are told: fear them, pity them, but most of all: fear them.”
A brief summary of Moonlight might give the impression we are in familiar territory – absent father, crack addict mother, deprived community, rare violence – but Moonlight takes you where ‘hood’ dramas rarely tread by providing a compelling portrait of the whole world of that surly, angry Black man.
Moonlight charts main character Chiron’s journey from self discovery and self acceptance in three chapters. An outsider from an early age Chiron is an outcast among his young peers in the ironically titled Liberty Square district, he is just not like the other boys and they can sense this. It doesn’t help that he is dark skinned, uncool and skinny.
We first meet Chiron as he is chased by a group of youths and rescued by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan takes this boy who does not utter a word to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). We discover that Chiron has more than just his friends to contend with – his mother is a crack addict swinging between brief glimmers of maternal affection and the chaos of her addiction. To say Chiron is being dragged up is an understatement: he is the epitome of neglect.
Chiron’s struggles intensify as he grows older – only now his peers begin to name his difference. In a scene of timeless cinematic beauty that difference – the discovery of his sexuality – becomes a moment of shared bliss rather than a curse – only for all of it to be swiftly taken away…
An education in Black masculinity
For me Moonlight is an education in (Black) masculinity, the three part structure paints the reality behind the performance of identity and why. In each chapter Chiron is beautifully played by three different actors (Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Alex R Hibbert). Remarkably, each actor rehearsed separately but somehow between the alchemy of script, directing and fine acting Chiron’s intense, wounded, brave man-boy is consistently played throughout.
Love in unlikely places
Amongst many things Moonlight is a commentary on father-son relationships. Juan – a drug dealer – is an unlikely source of unconditional love. A Cuban American, perhaps Juan sees in the abandoned boy a mirror of himself and an opportunity for redemption. But he is not a romanticised figure and his drug dealing has a direct bearing on Chiron’s life. Through Juan, director Barry Jenkins makes a simple statement familiar to Black audiences but rarely seen on cliché-ridden screens: that paternal love can be found in the most unlikely sources.
Juan’s relationship with Chiron also brings Moonlight’s mythical quality to the fore in particular the scene in which Juan teaches Chiron to swim, which evokes Classical, Biblical and West African lore.
The home provided by Juan and Teresa is a light-filled place of haven while the home he shares with his mother is a stark underworld in the grip of his gorgon mother. It is also a stark portrait of the mother-child relationship. Naomi Harris is darkly superb in her depiction of the highs and lows of addiction whilst also bringing a humanity to her role. She is an emotional coward, but also a child-woman ultimately unable to face the crushing responsibility of her failure.
The parent-child dynamic is one of several ways in which Moonlight closely mirrors the personal biographies of director Barry Jenkins and writer of the original story, the award-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Both were born and raised where Moonlight is set: Liberty City is a nearly all Black, poor, insular neighbourhood of Miami, Florida.
McCraney describes Liberty City as “…the confluence of madness and urban blight/Yet, it is incredibly beautiful.” Both men had mothers who through drug addiction became HIV infected and both men were passed between or taken in by families and carers.
Jenkins and McCraney attended the same High School although their paths did not cross until years later when the script was passed onto Jenkins by mutual friends. It was a combination of story, the potential to display his craft as a filmmaker seeped in cinema’s heritage but mostly its proximity to his personal story that inspired Jenkins to make this film. Colour, texture, and Chiron’s childhood rituals in Moonlight are all inspired by the lives of its director and original writer.
A story told through the eyes of the Other amongst Others…
Moonlight then comes from a place of truth. It does not wave a rainbow flag nor a Black Lives Matter banner, because it doesn’t need to. At every level it beautifully but simply captures a community, a people, a young man in pain and searching for a way to heal.
To discuss Moonlight in the context of #OscarssoWhite, as some commentators have done, is reductive. It risks implying that praise for the movie is informed by a guilt-ridden response to 2016’s absence of Black Academy Award nominations. This would be a gross injustice.
Moonlight is a uniquely powerful yet understated wonder that will reverberate long after the award season. This will be a competitive year for the Oscars – and, for me, Moonlight will be at the head of the table whatever decisions are made. It is unique. It resonated with me on so many frequencies that I was caught between whooping and tears of joy.
Returning to my starting point – Moonlight differs from the back catalogue of ‘Hood’ films because most are based upon the mythologies which the ‘Hood’ tries to sell. A story told through the eyes of the Other amongst Others bears witness to a truth that many are not yet ready to reveal.”
Dr Edson Burton is a writer, & historian who’s broad interest in Black History, Literature and Culture is united by his commitment to challenge and to reimagine Black experience. Edson solidified his long standing relationship with the Watershed in 2014 when he curated last year’s highly successful Afrofuturism season. His personal focus as part of the Come the Revolution Collective is on Black sexuality with a particular emphasis on performative sexualities. Edson’s work overlaps with his role as a project coordinator at the Trinity Arts Centre.