My Favorite Movies of 2016 – Part 2: “Moonlight”

Content warning for homophobic language and depictions of drug abuse.

Stories about coming to grips with one’s identity often depend on the idea that there is a crystal clear sense of knowledge about oneself gleamed at a young age.  Hell, there’s a certain anthem sung by Lady Gaga that endorses the idea that one just KNOWS who the fuck they are the moment they’re popped out, and that you should embrace that with every inch of fight in one’s body. But what that kind of celebratory storytelling misses is that for a lot of people, such knowledge doesn’t click for a long time. Sometimes, being able to affirm who you are gets delayed. A lot. Sometimes by belief, other times by inner turmoil, abuse, and fear. “Moonlight” is already a daring work simply by looking at the struggles of gay black men from an intimate, unflinching view, but what pushes the film to excellence is how rather than doing away with the complexities and struggles of its subject matter, it embraces it. Whether you’re a drug addict, drug dealer, crook, cop, young or old, everyone deals with the hardships on the road to self-affirmation in different ways. No one truly knows how you can affirm yourself, but one thing that can get you there is a little kindness…which, it turns out, can be found anywhere.

Except even my description only scratches the surface of just how tender, uncompromising and emotionally complex the movie is. The movie breaks a lot of narrative, “rules” in that it has a 3-act structure but doesn’t adhere to it like someone is grasping a copy of Robert McKee for dear life. There are very few establishing shots, and most of the time it follows the lead character close-up throughout periods of his life. It cuts and flows abruptly through pivotal moments, to the point where even the way someone opens their eyes communicates more than 5 pages of a screenplay can hope to communicate. It even has the gall to have tenderness and empathy for a man who sells crack cocaine, in an age where drug abuse still dominates many parts of the world. All to pain a complex picture of a man’s coming of age, and their eventual embrace of themselves in a world that barely gives embrace to him.

The story is a chronicle of the life of one person (played at different parts by Alex P. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) who gets branded with many nicknames. “Black”, “Blue”, “Gay”, “Faggot”, these are nicknames he is given throughout his life, but they don’t even begin to touch upon who he really is. Throughout this young man’s life, he can only be himself in fits and starts. For just a series of short moments, he gets to be himself, whether it’s play-fighting with a friend, sitting alone in a bathtub with water warmed from a stove and suds made out of dishwashing liquid, or even just a moment where he gets to have a full meal away from his abusive mother (played by Naomie Harris), who struggles with addiction to crack cocaine and who is often either strung out and hateful or slothful and absent-minded. Those bits and pieces of hurt, comfort and reflection add up to something, and while he is able to embrace that something, there is another series of moments that lead to something more, all involving a childhood friend/lover (played in various parts by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland)…and boy is that a journey in itself. Oh, yeah, and in the midst of this story is a drug dealer played by Mahershala Ali (yes, Cottonmouth from, “Luke Cage” is in this) and Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend, who provide in just a few excellent short bits moments that form the philosophical backbone and dichotomies of this coming-of-age story.

The most striking thing about, “Moonlight”, written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on a play by Tarell McCaraney, is how it doesn’t make obvious swings towards cinematic big moments. Every little bit adds up to a whole, and the key is in recognizing the hardships and beauty that can be found in tiny moments, tiny spaces. In a world of oppression, one can only grasp at what’s in front of you, as opposed to waiting for a hero with a pre-packaged ideal to save you. Which doesn’t excuse the actions of the characters (especially not the main character’s mother or even what their childhood friend does), but neither does it negate the power of genuine love that exists in this world. When it comes to gaining confidence in yourself and affirming your right to exist, one is often taught that to do so one has to stand tall, make a big John Galt-like monologue telling everyone who you are in drawn out, “inspirational” tomes. But here is a movie that shows that its ok to keep things to yourself, if not because the world is dangerous (and the world as shown by, “Moonlight” is dangerous), but because to love yourself you have to face yourself with honesty and tenderness.

That’s the silent power of, “Moonlight”: a movie that accumulates a series of jump cuts, musical beats, and hovering close ups to into a lesson of the benefits of introspection and self-reflection in a harsh world. The ending sequence could very well stay in my memory until the day I die: a scene of two men embracing each other, with far away looks showing that they are transported into a place of genuine love and healing, melting into the moving image of a child looking into the ocean and looking back with wide eyes. Moments like this show how worthwhile being yourself is, no matter how hostile the world is, while acknowledging that it is ok to take your time, to be unsure, and even to be wrong. Now, let’s see someone make a pop music anthem out of THAT.

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