Exploring what the film meant to say most
By now, we all know of the hype that surrounds the film "Moonlight." We know that it won this year's Academy Award for Best Picture in the most dramatic/memorable/weird way possible, first losing to "La La Land," then finding out the announcement was incorrect and "Moonlight" had actually won. We also have heard how Bay Area native Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Furthermore, we've heard how "Moonlight" became the first ever film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture. For these reasons and more, I sat down to watch "Moonlight" and see for myself why it has garnered so much love since its release. But by the film's ending, I was more concerned with the question of, what was that film really about? What was its most important theme or lesson to take away from it? What is the most important thing to glean from such a celebrated film here in the tumultuous times of 2017?
The best compliment I can give to the film "Moonlight" is that it makes you think. It makes you ponder a laundry list of subjects and issues that all unfold in less than two hours. By the time the last scene arrives, and young Chiron or "Little" is standing alone on a moonlit beach in Miami, the viewer has wrestled with a long list of life's questions. All questions that have clearer answers than when the film begins with Juan climbing out of his car to check on his successful drug dealing business.
Barry Jenkins was the director of "Moonlight," and we can never be sure of the main message he wanted to deliver above all the others. But let's take some time to explore some of the candidates for his most important themes.
The crush of capitalism
"The Wire" has been praised endlessly for being a television drama that exposed Americans to the inner-workings of their country. People love to praise "The Wire" for unveiling the dark underbelly of America's government, police force, public schools, gangs, news business and more. Well, "Moonlight" does a great job of this as well. One way the film explains the pressures of a dog-eat-dog capitalistic structure is through the dramatic scene when Juan finds Chiron's mom smoking crack in the passenger seat of a car. Juan is understandably angry to see such destructive behavior from a seemingly promising young mother. But when he airs her out, Juan is quickly put in his place. After all, he provided the crack rocks to Paula in the first place. Maybe not directly, but Juan was where Paula was going for drugs. And as much as Juan wanted Chiron to have a clean mother, he wanted a nice car and a nice place to live with his girlfriend even more. Juan needed to get paid, and who doesn't. Simple as that.
Kids can smell blood in the water
"Moonlight" does a great job of showing how perceptive kids can be. When they see vulnerability in a peer, they are adept at identifying this and grabbing the power that is left there for the taking. When Chiron is a young boy, it is no coincidence his peers dub him as "Little." And it is a name that follows him everywhere, even chasing him in-between chain link fences into Miami crackhouses. "Moonlight" does a great job of showing how fast Chiron's world seems to be spinning around him. The cinematography allows the viewer to step behind Chiron's lens of life and notice how hard it must be. Chiron seems to be developmentally delayed. Not the fastest runner or the quickest to respond to a question; he is even afraid to talk. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Chiron's mom was already a client of Juan's drug business before her son was born. The sad result is that Chiron seems to be out in stormy seas without a paddle. He can't defend himself intellectually or physically, and sadly, non of it is his fault. Unfortunately, the kids of Chiron's community know his drawbacks all too well, and they choose to make his life hell because of it.
How school violence manifests itself
Certainly one of the most dramatic scenes in "Moonlight" is when a teenage Chiron storms through the heavy doors of his high school, marches into his classroom, grabs a wooden chair, and breaks it over the back of his longtime bully, Terrel. With the type of school shootings you see so often today in America, this type of school violence is certainly believable, as ruthless as it appears when it unfolds. Of course, by this time in the film, we have seen the steps that led to this outbreak of violence. We understand why it had to be done. We almost have to smile when we see Chiron escorted down the steps by police in handcuffs. Terrel had it coming! But without knowing that Chiron's dad was never around, that his mom was smoking crack and hassling him for money, that he had been bullied and beat up all his life, that his sexuality was a secret, it would be easy for us to criminalize Chiron as a typical thug acting a fool. But with the help of "Moonlight," we know all too well why Chiron needed to crush Terrel with that chair. It had to be done.
The struggle to be yourself
Throughout "Moonlight," Chiron is on a mission to find himself and become comfortable in his own skin. To act and live like he truly feels, instead of playing a role laid out for him by society. Everyday people struggle with this task every single day. We all know how hard it is to be yourself, but when you find yourself in Chiron's case, "being yourself" is extraordinarily difficult. Growing up on the mean and macho streets of inner-city Miami, there is little room for Chiron to express the fact that he is a gentle, thoughtful and caring young boy. He has no interest in fighting. But of course, he must learn to fight in order to survive. Chiron is also gay. A fact that makes his social life all the more tricky in the environment he is raised. Because of this, Chrion is forced to live a life of secrecy, only sharing one honest sexual experience for his entire life. As an adult, Chiron plays the role of a muscle bound drug dealer with a grill and a chain and a intimidating car. Certainly Chiron is failing to "be himself," but "Moonlight" helps us understand why this simply wasn't possible.
The difficulties of being a good parent
If you want to understand how and why so many good-intentioned parents end up failing miserably, look no further than "Moonlight" for some explanation. Chiron's mother Paula is a strong, graceful, beautiful woman at the beginning of the film. She has all the makings of a good mom, but she instead falls short. For one, she is a single parent in a rough neighborhood with limited time to look after Chiron. She compounds the problem of falling for the allure of drugs. A habit she can't keep at bay, no matter how much her son means to her. When Juan attempts to fill the role of a good dad to Chiron, he is met with obstacles of his own. Sure, Juan can extend a tender hand to Chiron and explain that is OK to be gay. But when asked point blank if it is OK to sell drugs, Juan doesn't have much of an answer. Surprisingly, the only adult who turns out to be able to handle the rigors of parenthood is Kevin. Out of wedlock and recently out of prison, at least Kevin is able to keep things together by lowering his expectations in life and grinding out a job at a diner.
Real progress is painful and incremental
The opening scene of "Moonlight" paints a grim picture. One of a torn down community filled with poverty, drugs and heartache. By the end of the film, all of the characters have made positive progress in their life, but they do so in a very real way. The progress is made in slow, choppy fashion, with tons of interruption and heartache. Still, the characters show that the formula of two steps forward and one step back still moves lives in the right direction. Chiron takes years to accept his sexuality and stand on his own two feet. He might still be in the closet, but he still exhibits the courage to drive down to see Kevin and express his true feelings. He might be a drug dealer in Atlanta, but he still has found a way to morph into an independent man who has the emotional and financial means to take care of his mom. The same concept holds true for characters like Kevin (once a insecure youth concerned with popularity is now a humble and hard working father). And likewise for Juan (a drug dealer who matures enough to take on the role of a father for a lost boy in the community).
Beauty can be found just about anywhere
"Moonlight" does a sneaky good job of showing the beauty of Miami, even in one of its most downtrodden neighborhoods. Even when Kevin convinces a young Chiron to engage in his first fight, the bout takes place on a earthy green patch of grass, with the bluest of skies. When Juan takes Chiron into the ocean to learn to swim, the viewer gets the feeling they are in the water right there with them, easily floating in fresh saltwater under the warm Florida sun. Even when Chiron sits down to dinner with Kevin in a beat up diner, drinking wine out of plastic cups, there is something romantic about the scene that couldn't be conjured up in a more sterile environment.
In sum, "Moonlight" is a wonderful film for many reasons. And judging by the Academy's Best Picture award, credit has been given where it is due. But to me, the reason why "Moonlight" is brilliant is because of the window it provides into worlds unknown to most in Hollywood or thereabouts. In a time where fake news prevails and Trump reigns all powerful, there has never been a time where a truthful explanation to America's problems is more needed. Fortunately, "Moonlight" is there to provide just that.