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Moonlight: Is This Impressive Film Hollywood's Best Movie of 2016? [Review]
Moonlight: Is This Impressive Film Hollywood's Best Movie of 2016? [Review]

Moonlight: Is This Impressive Film Hollywood's Best Movie of 2016? [Review]

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Days after I saw an advanced screening of Moonlight at Morehouse College, I felt haunted. I felt haunted by nothingness and silence. I tried to exercise this muted demon. I played music loud, I cried until tears fell down onto my ears and made it so I could hear the ocean forming in my earlobes. I asked my mom questions about my family that I had never found myself brave enough to ask before. These things would all suffice for a moment, but the silence was there shortly after like a persistent suitor, or the moon. Oblivion is a patient inevitability in that way.

And this is the type of film that Moonlight is.

It its hardly about what you saw for that hour-and-fifty-one minutes of your life. Instead, Moonlight is about how it echoes, or doesn't echo, in the moments of your life afterwards. Some of the echoes are children's laughs. Others are the echoes of eerie winds. However, Moonlight is the type of film that forces you to listen to both the activity and the interludes of silence in your own life.

For those unaware of what Moonlight is about, the film is a coming-to-age tale told in three parts involving a young boy that grows into manhood during the crack epidemic in 1980s Miami. Chiron, played beautifully by three different actors (Alex R. HibbertAshton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), is grappling with his own sexuality and queerness while still going through the perils of a rocky home life. Moonlight was written by playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins. Immersed in this environment, Chiron must navigate these drug-infected waters alongside his crack-addicted mother named Paula (played intensely and delicately by Naomie Harris), a smooth-talking drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae).

Chiron must also figure out himself as a sensitive person in an insensitive and harsh reality. Upon first meeting Juan in Moonlight, Chiron does not speak. In each scene, audiences are privy to the love, the torment and the curiosity that lies within Chiron, but due to his faithfulness to black traditions — he often stays silent.

Moonlight: Is This Impressive Film Hollywood's Best Movie of 2016? [Review]

Miles Davis has said about jazz that "it's not about the notes you play, but the notes you don't play." And in Moonlight, silence, like jazz, is a black tradition. The act of not speaking about what harms us or what troubles us has been both a common social practice and often an act of pure survival. Director Barry Jenkins employs this distinction masterfully throughout Moonlight's duration. More interesting than when the characters exchange words are when they do not. The silence makes the emotions leap off of the screen, makes them real and makes the moments of dialogue that much more vital.

In Moonlight, we see a scene where Chiron's mother is yelling at him. The scene is muted and what the imagination projects into the air between the two proves to be more powerful than perhaps what could have been written for that particular scene. Later on, we see Chiron meeting Juan and the former says little to nothing. This silence informs Juan and his girlfriend about how disturbed the child is more than a monologue about his crack-addled mother could ever tell you. When Chiron does speak like when he asked Juan, "if he was a fa***t?" It was purposeful and powerful. The silence employed throughout Moonlight makes it so that no word of dialogue feels less than poetic and absolutely necessary for the advancement of the story or characters.

A pivotal scene in the character's development in Moonlight is when Chiron is offered the chance to stay silent about a bullying situation or speak. When he chooses silence, when he chooses violence the crowd in the advanced screening I attended roars in celebration while my heart sinks. In that moment, with no words, just silence, I knew Chiron chose the path of Miles Davis' jazz. The path of the toxic masculine black man that does not speak. He just hits in the black male tradition. This is one of the few violent moments in the film which was a relief. This, too, is how Moonlight brilliantly employs silence as a way to care for the audience. Too often do I consume media and feel assaulted by it. The reveal of a character's death was never shown on screen, but replaced with the use of time, silence and smart dialogue instead of a recreation of trauma that we've already too often seen on our smartphones and our social media pages.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

It would be an error to frame Moonlight as a flawless achievement, and it would be an error to conflate flawlessness with excellence. Moonlight is excellent. The flaws are subtle, but still remind me that this should not serve as the ultimate pedagogy for the black gay male experience. Instead, Moonlight is the first crack to break the dam that floods the world with stories about the black queer male into the zeitgeist. There are moments where the story talks over my shoulder to the white person behind me. There are elements in the story that I feel use queerness and irony as a way to disrupt the white imagination's perception of the dangers of the black man. This was a very specific story device that was designed for universal appeal in order to show humanity and complexity behind those usually only regarded as super predators in the white person's imagination.

The people that this film is truly about already know there is complexity, nuance and a narrative to every "crackhead," "super predator" and "fa***t". This film has more moments that serve to reveal this to a more general, likely more white and likely more heterosexual audience. This gaze stops deeper investigation into these characters' conditions from happening that I think could expand my own imagination as someone not as easily shocked or enthralled by the story for no other reason than a black-and-queer story is all too familiar and routine. Regardless, Moonlight feels good as a queer black story handled artfully and thoughtfully, but because of this presence of a white gaze during the film it does not stand next to this year's cultural productions that feel more for usby us.

Viewing Moonlight as a queer black man felt more about us, for them more often than I could ignore.

This observation also evolves into the ideas that make you interrogate all the things that made this film's completion and positive reception possible. If the gender performance of the character leaned more toward the hyper-feminine or the character's experience with gender was transgender, would Moonlight be as easily and widely swallowed by the public? If adult Chiron had more material and aesthetic transgressions against cis-heterosexual ideas of black masculinity, would we be interested in his bedroom, his body or his future? Moonlight, while fascinating for the general (re: white and/or heterosexual) public, leaves spaces for other queer black stories to be told that are just as riveting, but perhaps even more gnarly and complex to reckon with for hegemonic society and those represented in these works. This film should not be mistaken for a general, or even a majority representation of what it means to be gay, black and young. It is one story that begs for one hundred more friends.

The saving grace in Moonlight is that it is undeniably impeccable artistically. The performances are grand. James Laxton, Moonlight's cinematopgrapher, is a poet with how he translates these scenes in ways that feel both vulnerable and painterly. There is a scene between Juan and young Chiron in the ocean that is poetry brought to life. Moonlight's story is not as original as it is potent. We all change, make choices and have known people that inform our arrivals at the selves we are today. When done as beautifully as presented, captured and executed in Moonlight — it is a story that humanity will never tire of witnessing.

Moonlight allows you, the audience, to remember the silence in the interludes of life and art. We think of the interludes between films like Killer of Sheep and the works by artists such as Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill. We remember the interludes between Paris is Burning and Passing Strange, or Pariah, or even Tangerine. It becomes obvious that Moonlight should not be seen as the magnum opus of queer blackness in film, but the beginning for more films that consider stories that center around people that live at the intersection of queerness and blackness.

Simply put, Moonlight is a brilliant star that invites storytellers to help in the making of a galaxy, while forcing the more general public to gaze at parts of the universe too often ignored.

Myles E. Johnson is an Atlanta, Georgia based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.