Moonlight is about Chiron. The movie focuses on this boy through three epochs of his life (Little, Chiron, Black) utilizing three different actors to pronounce the difference, all carrying his characteristic inwardness. Chiron is a lonely boy, terrifically quiet and obviously not in on the rules of the game that all his fellow inner-city Miami schoolmates seem to get instantly.
Moonlight is about Chiron, the lonely black, gay, poor boy looking for love.
Compassion for Characters
Surrounding Chiron are amazingly complex characters; one of the most prominent of these is Juan. Juan is the first character we see. He drives up to his corner in his long, shiny car with a crown on the dashboard, and checks in with one of his dealers who thanks him for the opportunity to work the corner for him. The camera pans from Juan to a group of boys chasing Little into a nearby crack house. Who comes to Little’s rescue? Juan. Not only does he free him from the house, but feeds him, takes him to his house, and gives him shelter until Chiron finally tells Juan and Teresa (Juan’s girlfriend) where he lives. Later on, Little shows up at Juan’s house one hot afternoon and so Juan takes him to the beach and teaches him how to swim by letting him float in his arms and modeling a front stroke.
When was the last time you went to a theater and saw a black drug dealer defined by his connection to a little boy rather than his trade?
While Moonlight achieves this, there is still a tension with Juan’s business and his relationship with Little. This tension is best seen when Little shows up at Juan and Teresa’s house after a rough night with his mom. “You sell drugs don’t you?” then “My mom does drugs don’t she?” and while Juan is reduced to teary-eyed silence Little walks out.
One of the more incredible things about Moonlight is that every occurrence happened to one or both of the director Barry Jenkins or the script writer Tarrel McCraney. Thinking of the drug dealer Juan was based on, McCraney says through tears, “I miss that drug dealer, I miss him very dearly. And to be with him again for 45 minutes is a gift.” Because Barry loved the drug dealer who taught him how to ride a bike, and both men loved their moms before, during, and after their struggles with crack (Chiron’s mother also descends into addiction during the movie), they’re able to capture their messy characters without judgment. It’s this, rather than the incredible lighting and camera work, that makes Moonlight new — the warmth of compassion that encompasses the characters in all their contradictions.
Where is the Church?
When I reflect on Moonlight as a person of faith it feels like an accusation. Not once at any point in this movie is God, the Church, Jesus, or even faith referenced. While I believe God is the source of all good things and so was present and the source of the people and their kindness that gets Chiron through, none of them seem to be motivated by their faith. On the one hand this is a beautiful picture of the basic human decency we find all around us. One the other it begs the question: where are the people of God? In fact, you could almost read the story of Juan above as a riff on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Who helps the boy in need? Not a pastor or nonprofit executive, but a drug dealer. Go and do likewise.
Chiron exists and has always existed. That alone is scandal that should call the church to account. How should the worship of God reveal itself? How are we witnessing to our belief in a God who seeks humanity out if not by intervening in the life of a Chiron?
For Chiron, and the men whose real stories inspired him, his salvation comes through the drug dealer who teaches him to swim and eases him into himself. It comes through Theresa who teaches him how to make the bed that is always open for him, and finally through Kevin who loves him for him. Not through the church. I don’t have an answer for this, and Jenkins and McCraney certainly aren’t going to give one, but it’s a problem that persists nonetheless.
More Than a Movie
Moonlight is an excellent movie that will undoubtedly do well during awards season. That happens every year though, movies win awards and then more are created to win more awards. This is different; this movie feels like a gift, it’s moved storytelling forward.
As a gay man, this movie is especially beautiful in how it treats Chiron’s growing awareness of his sexuality as just one part in his multifaceted life. Historically it’s rare to have a blockbuster success that deals with a gay character who isn’t a problem to be solved (The Bird Cage), a foil to a homophobic central character (Kinky Boots, Philadelphia), or not simply tragic (Brokeback Mountain). Chiron has a lot to deal with: poverty, his mother’s addiction, the lack of a father, a school to prison pipeline, etc. Figuring out how to relate to himself and others (sexually) is a significant challenge, but it’s one of many and brings blessings as big as burdens.
When I left the theater the first time, a group of ladies walked out in front of me and giggled to themselves about the last scene saying, “I thought they were going to do [more]” and to be honest so did I. What the creators grasped intuitively that we missed is that what Chiron needs is simply connection. I can still see that last shot of Little at the beach, the sight of all his happiness, bathed in the moonlight that makes black boys look blue, looking back like someone called him. Someone did. It was himself at last.