Black is Beautiful: A Moonlight Review
If I could have, I would have been one of those people in a movie theater who was messing with my phone and disrupting everybody else's experience during the movie. (In all honesty I have been that person. Too often).
In this case, however, it would not have been from boredom.
As I had the privilege of watching Moonlight in a full room of dynamic looking and diverse people at the Million Dollar Theater in Downtown LA, where a live orchestra accompanied the movie and a Q&A was given at the end; I was overcome with feelings and words to write about it. Had I written this review last night while in the theater, it would have been completely different.
Alas, I was compelled to not touch anything remotely resembling a phone or computer during the entirety of this captivating film.
Moonlight, the experience, was a meditation on nascent manhood and not "masculinity," which I consider to be the performance of manhood, rather than the actual being in it.
I'm not sure if it was the blues of Miami behind the burnt umber of Chiron and Juan, or the fact that such deep pigments of men are so seldomly seen on movie screens in a poetic fashion; but while watching Moonlight I couldn't help but think about how hypnotic it was.
"Masculinity" and the ideas around it are provocative. It is at once alleged to be unbreakable, resolute and unquestionable; yet explodes/crumbles at the slightest provocation or indication of the observation of it. Its fragility is evident.
Thus, manhood is a difficult subject. Not only because the experience of self can often be traumatic, but because the social discussions about men and manhood are so limited. They are often designated or relegated to fetishist conversations about "masculinity" and "what a man is."
On rare occasion one comes across a person, a story, a conversation about HOW a man is. Moonlight had so many elements of this. How does a repressed gay man become a thug? How does he become loved? How does he experience these things as they are happening to him? How does he respond? How does he become what he is?
Such interesting questions are often swept under the "masculinity rug." We learn from such loud responses to hushed considerations that manhood is not to be questioned. Thus, it is not to be considered. It "just is," but isn't to be contemplated. Apparently it is a behemoth of emotiveness that even men are not encouraged to trespass against or speak about.
It is true that I am a melanin-having cisgender feminice. I have experienced plenty of intersectionality in this world simply by being who I am. Such a background still does not make me enlightened when it comes to the melanin-having (in this case not only "black," but also dark as fukh) experiences of gay, non-cisgender and/or queer men.
But god, there is so much to say about them!
Two things I will not deny here. I had these reoccurring thoughts throughout watching Moonlight that I was aware have been imposed on me having grown up in an urban (read: city), American (read: USA) society. Despite knowing that, I still thought these things again and again.
1. That I really hoped I would not have to witness a rape scene or any showcasing of black men as sexually predatory, particularly gay and/or questioning men.
2. What I imagined homophobic individuals would say about such a (beautiful) film being praised during awards season. Namely that such individuals would suggest that of course Moonlight is getting attention because it "emasculates" black men.
The two things above are a part of this "masculinity carpeting" that suggests that (what I will call) specialized experiences of blackness or manhood are not valid. That portrayals of these profoundly repressed and yet beautiful individuals who happen to be queer, gay and/or questioning men of melanin are somehow "taking away" from the dignity of "normal blackness" or black culture in general.
I, obviously, do not feel that way. But I was aware of that argument throughout my enjoyment of this film.
As to my first repetitive thought, I really did not want to see queerness presented as "deviance." In the best of all possible worlds, I of course want to see healthy, supportive and consensual relationships between all people. That being acknowledged, I am not ignorant of the world we live in and what people think of each other, let alone do to one another.
Blessedly, Moonlight gave me more than I could have even thought to ask for when it came to its representation of coming-of-age queer men in the hood. And of course it did. Like I said, I am not a man, a man of color or a queer (FYI, I love this word and prefer it over all others when referring to people of "specialized sexuality." If it offends you, please let me know why) person of color. I am not living that experience.
Thus, my hopes and fears fall short of what that experience is. And, in the fashion of true artistry, Moonlight delivered beyond the expanses of my limited ideas and imagination about what such a film can represent.
I am not of the belief that the shine of one person must, by nature, take away from the shine of any other. Similarly, I do not believe that telling a profoundly moving story about a gay dark man from the hood somehow negates the experiences of "straight" dark men from the hood or anywhere else. If anything, it's much harder for queer melanin-having men to find a place that is for them.
The queer melanin-having man is not only rejected and marginalized by the institutions that uphold hwhite privilege and heteronormativity; he is also rejected by melanin-having men and women for the same reasons he is rejected by the larger hierarchy. This is called social conditioning and it is real and at work upon everybody within a given society.
Where a queer melanin-having man is embraced must be a larger question for him than it is for me. But I ask it anyway.
All I know is that throughout watching Moonlight I wanted to hold Little, Chiron, Black and Kevin continuously. Who is there to tell these men that they are beautiful, interesting and worthy when their own parents cannot tell them? When their own communities will not embrace them? Who is here for these men who are drowning in their questioning? In their doubts? In their self-loathing?
Not that we needed the Golden Globes to tell us, but obviously popular culture is not here for them. (More on "LaLaLand" at the end of this review ... ). Moonlight makes it clear that more often than not, a queer melanin-having man's home is no refuge from the storm of self-hood either. It would seem that most of these men must find such comforting in one another, should they be lucky enough to stumble upon a positive experience of their sexuality.
I suspect that not many queer melanin-having men are privileged enough to come across people who embrace them, particularly in their early years. And, for that reason and so many others, the suicide rate of queer men of melanin is growing.
I hesitate to talk about the acting mostly because I know that no words I write will do it justice. Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Andre Holland, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner and Jharrel Jerome did not meet each other until about 15 minutes before filming their scenes together. In the case of the three men that played Little, Chiron and Black, they were not allowed to engage AT ALL.
Their portrayals of these men, and obviously I'm focusing on the men in particular here (both Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae were good, but there's no mistaking who the stars of this picture are and it's not them), were incredibly personal and artfully played. AND. THEY. DIDN'T. EVEN. MEET. EACH. OTHER. DURING. FILMING. Nor, according to Barry Jenkins, were they allowed to review each other's work before acting as the same character.
From a progression perspective, this really did a lot for the film. As kids, we are not privy as to how we will be as teenagers or adults. And though we do have the knowledge of our previous experiences as we get older, that isn't to say that any of us are able to make sense of those experiences and learn or grow from them at any given future moment.
So, particularly with a repressed and yet deeply expressive character such as Chiron, it felt real how awkward and alien to himself he was throughout his maturation. Little, Chiron and Black definitely all feel connected and all carry his silent questioning like immaculate soldiers in the quiet war waged against them by everybody who will not let them be. But each of their experiences of themselves and their surroundings does feel isolated and different. And that is how it should be. (In my opinion anyway, obviously).
The score by Nicholas Britell is a wonder. (Full disclosure: I really care about scores in films. As a writer I use original scores to put me in certain frames of mind. I'm listening to Moonlight's Original Score as I am typing this. I disliked Interstellar mostly because the music was too loud and because it was by "Hans Zimmer" (why that is in quotations will have to wait for another post). I thought Rogue One was old-fashioned mostly because John Williams wrote the music).
The sounds behind what is spoken and depicted is important to me. How much it speaks to a particular film. How personal it is. And Nicholas Britell, a cisgender white male, could relate to this film. And did. The score that came out of him is profound and that is a credit to his sensitivity and awareness as a man who can appreciate other male experiences that aren't his.
Now that I have praised Moonlight TO THE GAWDS, let's talk about some other elements in this movie's environment.
Let me take a minute to talk about the Golden Globes and LaLaLand.
I am, in fact, a Los Angeles native. Which is kind of an offensive way for me to describe myself considering I'm 1st generation and, by technicality, the furthest thing from a native of this landmass. But, which essentially means I was born, bred and buttered in this city. I am actually from Los Angeles.
Because of this, and because movies are our favored type of theater, I am biased as hell about movies that depict life here. We have a bad reputation out there among a lot of people and it's not because of the people who were born here.
It's because of Hollywood. Now, Hollywood has made this city what is has become and we who are from here have often benefited immensely from the creative vortex that is "the business." That being acknowledged, most of the people who work in "the business" today (and probably always) ARE. NOT. FROM. HERE.
So if you come or move to LA and you find you were not properly welcomed: You were robbed or betrayed or just generally ignored and rejected; perhaps you were made to feel worthless. Let me explain something to you: IT WASN'T BY AN LA NATIVE (probably). No, no. We are rare minorities in this city and we stick together.
It was probably somebody from Oklahoma who cut you off on the freeway, it was probably a bartender from New York who didn't serve you because your tits weren't showing, it was probably someone from Texas who belittled you because of your clothing and it was probably someone from Georgia who betrayed your trust to get your audition.
PSA: the reasons you hate LA have little to nothing to do with the people who are actually from here. We, too, have been betrayed by our city. Which is not ours but everyone's. Which has no loyalty to us and yet we stay and carry on for the culture anyway. And that we constantly hear people who come here badmouth at home or away despite the fact that it is people like them who are, in fact, their complaint.
Which brings me to this joke LaLaLand. I have not seen it and I do not need to. I'm from here. I've spoken to easily 10,000 people over my lifetime who came here "to act" and never "made it." I do not weep for these people. Acting is typically not a form of altruism and you, ten-thousandth-and-first person, will not receive sympathy from me for attempting to throw your life into it.
I also grew up on musicals. The non-New York kind where there are actually moments of just speaking. And, even then, when they chose to cast people who could not sing, they had the decency to dub them. It was wack for the real vocalist, but it made for a more honest musical.
There is this wave of faux-authenticity in musical films where they choose good actors with mediocre voices for their star power (read: popularity). I am not for this. For the rare occasion that it works out beautifully (Moulin Rouge), the majority of these films not only fall far short of excellence, but also great musicality.
If you're mainly an actor and you can carry a tune, congratulations(?) I guess. I mean, do you want a bone for that? There are people who can SANG who have spent their whole lives cultivating that talent while you were acting.
Then there are those individuals who really and truly do both.
Neither Emma Stone nor Ryan Gosling are such people. Why are they in this musical? Why is this musical about an actress trying to make it in LOS ANGELES? (This shit could have been made in NYC and been way more brilliant). Why is this musical in existence?
THEN this muhfuh Damien Chazelle has the AUDACITY to cast RYAN GOSLING as the SAVIOR OF "real" JAZZ MUSIC. *If you could see my face right now*. And John Legend as the pretentious asshole trying to take jazz somewhere "inauthentic."
The hwhiteness of this film is near unbelievable.
And then. AND THEN IT WON THE MOST GOLDEN GLOBES IN GOLDEN GLOBES HISTORY?
Over ... ANYTHING?
Fukh outta here, GG. What is it with awards shows that start with G and that be audaciously flagrant with their parade of self-congratulatory awarding of irrelevance (I'm talking to you, too, Grammys).
I'm not going to go in too hard on Damien because the hwhite man's burden is whimself and the mediocrity he creates that becomes his legacy. However, I will surely suggest you peep this out ...
If that's not a meditation on when excellence meets with privilege, I don't know what is. (Jon Favreau is interviewing, for the record).
I'm not going to say Moonlight was robbed this awards season. It wasn't.
You cannot rob greatness of what it is.
As a film, Moonlight will stand the test of time. It is, in fact, a testament to the life of queer melanin-having men. Done not only with the participation of the culture it portrays, but by making the highlighting of that culture prevalent at every stage of the creative process*. The film has integrity and that will hold up in the light of judgment, which is what makes it authentic.
Mark my words: the future will look back on films about manhood and count Moonlight as canon.
* More on Kubo and the Two Strings later