Why Moonlight Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie

Barry Jenkins’s audacious coming-of-age drama is a personal and poetic story about black queerness.

Why <i>Moonlight</i> Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie   Courtesy A24

By now you've most likely heard about Moonlight, the Barry Jenkins-directed film that is being hailed left and right as a masterpiece. Based on a never-released work by MacArthur-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, the movie follows the story of a poor, black kid named Chiron who lives in Miami with his drug-addicted mother. His life unfolds in the film across three pivotal chapters, points at which his suppressed queerness comes into question with a sort of desperate, beautiful tenderness.

Moonlight explores what it means to will yourself into an uncertain existence, and that a gay black kid is placed at its narrative center only heightens the film's potency. In an interview with The FADER, Jenkins himself called the film a “hood-arthouse coming-of-age LGBT drama,” but, really, it is so much more than that.

Because I couldn’t get enough of the film — which debuts in theaters on October 21 — I reached out to FADER editors Anupa Mistry and Patrick D. McDermott and TV writer Cord Jefferson to discuss Moonlight’s true-to-life storytelling and just why we’ve never seen a film quite like this one. [Note: There are spoilers ahead, so maybe see the film before you read this if you don’t want us to ruin it for you.]



Jason Parham: “What if blackness was the default?” It was a question I posed to a friend some months back. He’s also a writer, and we regularly trade stories about working in an industry where blackness is commodified publicly and is only often granted permission by white gatekeepers. It comes down to a problem of ownership and translation: How can we best get the stories we need to tell into the world if the people who have final say over them do not look like us, or do not fully understand the experiences we write about? Though not always true, this difficulty often results in race or identity being engaged at face value. If blackness, I told my friend, was the default — if we existed fully at every level in the industry — imagine the stories we could tell, the layers we could peel off. Imagine how vulnerable we could really be. We actually wouldn't be writing about race. We would be writing beyond it.

For me, Moonlight is the first film in modern cinema to tap into this kind of depth. It wasn’t until days after I saw the movie, when I read a review in which the critic mentioned how there were no white people in the film, that it hit me. Sitting in the theater, the thought never once crossed my mind — because the characters in front of me, the way they loved and fought and spoke to each other, the way they wore their shame, so so beautifully, it all seemed very ordinary. The story is not trying to be anything other than it needs to be. There is no posturing. There is no grand statement yearning to be made (I don't think so, at least). In Jenkins’s hands, the darkness that Chiron and Juan and Kevin wade through — a darkness that, in another director’s care, might consume the lives of its characters in an oversimplified fashion — is the light.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll start with this: Anupa, when was the last time you encountered such vulnerability on screen, and in a film that is undeniably black and undeniably queer? It feels like a revelation.

Moonlight just feels so true-to-life, the abrupt stops and unexpected starts, and the lack of answers pretty much always.” —Patrick D. McDermott

Anupa Mistry: I actually know the answer to that one! I’d say Dee Rees’s 2011 movie Pariah, which was about a black teenager grappling with her queerness. I think about its opening scene often: Khia’s tingly sex jam “My Neck My Back” is playing, and black light illuminates the faces of patrons set level with the bodies of strippers. The sequence bears tonal, if not spiritual, relation with another favorite intro of mine, for Hype Williams’s 1998 movie, Belly. In fact, Pariah’s cinematographer Bradford Young has been particularly vocal about building on the work of black cinematographers including Malik Hassan Sayeed, who did Belly. Though there may be color parallels to make with Moonlight — those blues, those pinks — I bring those films up not just to answer your question, Jason, but to talk about a continuum.

You’re right to suggest that there’s something about Moonlight that feels like a first. A couple of years ago the naive buzzword “post-race” was bandied about and, check me if I’m out of step, but Moonlight might truly embody that absurd idea in that it is certainly a black film, informed entirely by the specific experiences of its black creators and characters, but it shirks the burden of being a ‘black film’ in relation to non-black people. Jenkins’s refusal to reduce Moonlight to some kind of teachable moment is especially significant given that we are living in a social and political reality that asks so much of black people. But he could only get to this point because he made Medicine For Melancholy in 2008, because Rees did Pariah, and Williams made Belly, and so on. One of the things that scares me a lot about our current social and political moment is that in clamoring for inclusion — of which black people, and other marginalized groups are undoubtedly deserving — many operate from an imagined, or uninformed, dearth, forgetting about the important cultural work of our forebears. I don’t think Moonlight is moving outside of history; to me, this past-is-present balance is revealed in that opening scene where Juan’s car radio is coughing out Boris Gardner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star.” Or, the modern brain buzzes, is he listening to Kendrick Lamar?

Cord, was there a moment in Moonlight that struck you in a way that felt truly unique?

Why <i>Moonlight</i> Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie   Courtesy A24

Cord Jefferson: I’d say the moment that I still linger over the most from Moonlight is the very final scene, and for other viewers it was maybe inconsequential for its brevity. It’s that quick shot of adult Kevin embracing adult Chiron in the dark, saying nothing but tenderly eroding the buildup of time and hurt and circumstances that had grown between them up to that point. Anyone who has fallen in and out of love, be it platonic or romantic, can understand the want for an embrace like that. A hug from someone you once adored who is now a stranger after either hurting you or being hurt by you. A hug from someone you didn't even really know you missed until you saw them standing in front of you again, reminding you of how much you’d been longing for their laugh or the gap in their teeth or the way they tell stories.

That embrace was forgiveness made manifest, which is always beautiful. But I loved it for another reason, also, which is that seeing two young black men hold one another on-screen — not because they’re gay, but because they both wanted to be held — is so rare as to be revolutionary.

I think that a lot of what Hollywood produces strips black people of our essential humanness. That’s not to say all movies and TV shows depict blacks as savages, but what the blackface brutes from Birth of a Nation (Griffith's, not Parker’s) and the Magical Negro from Bagger Vance have in common is that they are not layered, nuanced, real human beings. Black people are neither evil nor mystical, and too many TV shows and films neglect to portray the humanity that sits within us the same as it sits with everyone else on earth.

When Chiron and Kevin embrace, it’s not sexual (we don't even know if either character is gay, which is another important flourish of nuance). It's just two men holding one another because it feels good to be held. It feels good to be asked how your day is going. It feels good to face a former enemy and unburden yourself of the hate you’d been brewing for them in your belly. It feels good to love and be loved in return. These aren't hyper-complex storylines. These are foundational tenets of personhood. When I watched Moonlight, I didn't feel like I was watching black characters. I felt like I was watching black people.

The film never explicitly says Chiron or Kevin are gay. I liked that about it. Patrick, what did you think of the ambiguity?

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Patrick D. McDermott: I enjoyed the ambiguity very much. Chiron's uncertainty about the world was crucial to the entire narrative, and that definitely extended to his own identity. He isn't sure, so the audience isn’t either. I don’t really think that the character of Kevin would identify as gay, but does that mean he couldn’t be sexually attracted to Chiron, or that he couldn’t look at him with romantic longing? Of course not. On-screen tales of "coming out" are important, vital even, but it also was powerful — and painful — to watch a queer love story unfold outside of that. Of course I wanted some kind of clarity for Chiron. I wanted him to feel comfortable in his body, to speak up, to yell, to quit being so nervous. But for the most part, that wasn’t his reality.

The rest of the film benefits from vagueness, too. The segments are narrow in breadth and perspective, intentionally limited by Chiron’s quiet demeanor and Jenkin’s tendency to linger on one or two events, honing in on the moments that really truly shaped Chiron without making any broad strokes. There are a lot of questions that never get answers, and not just about sexuality: We never learn how Chiron’s quasi-father-figure Juan passed away, if he was murdered or got sick or something else entirely. We don’t really know what becomes of Juan’s kind wife Teresa, who is played with humor and compassion by Janelle Monae. And we don’t know what happens after the credits roll, after the embrace between Chiron and Kevin that Cord felt so strongly about. Something about that just feels so true-to-life, the abrupt stops and unexpected starts, and the lack of answers pretty much always.

Like Cord said, mysticism has been used to unfairly caricaturize black characters in other films. While that isn't the case here, there’s a particular, persistent dreamlike quality that only fades in a few places. Jason, do you think there was a kind of magic at work in the film?

Why <i>Moonlight</i> Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie   Courtesy A24

Jason: Cord, I actually disagree. The final scene was maybe the only flaw in the film. For its entirety, these people that we’ve come to know — and quietly love — float in a sort of middle space. Life’s gray area. I think because Chiron’s existence is a series of suppressed moments, feelings he never truly actualizes until that one night with Kevin on the beach, I wanted him to finally take control. I hated that the film ended on such an obscure frame. That’s a self-serving thing of me to say, but don’t you just ache for Chiron to land one win? To finally become the person he wants to be, and the person we all want him to be and know he can be? I did appreciate the tenderness of that scene. The image of them, sitting silent in the creeping darkness, just holding each other. And yet, it just didn’t seem fair. To them or us.

Moonlight is still the best film I’ve seen all year, and that’s partially why I’m upset. I feel connected to it; tethered to these people and their lives. This isn’t fiction. I think it’s important to be clear about that. Chiron’s story is Chiron's story, but there are parallels. For me, at least. The feeling of never really being in control, of not being sure if you’ll ever escape this in-between place or even how to get out of it. I think it’s only natural to want the best for him and Kevin since we want the best for ourselves.

I loved Jenkins's use of color and sound. The scene where Juan teaches young Chiron (a.k.a. Little) to swim is a favorite. The image of their jet black bodies in what looks like a sea of crystals. It felt like peering into a painting by Kerry James Marshall or Kehinde Wiley. But it’s the angle of the scene that does all the work: the way the camera is almost always half-submerged under water, as if we too might suddenly drown with Chiron and all of his hopes. There were other moments of pure beauty and idyllic movie-making: the glitter in Chiron’s gold-plated smile in the final chapter, the bright palette of Miami contrasted so pristinely to the people who slink through its streets. (Think of how high-school aged Chiron’s head is constantly in a state of submission — to his mom, to the boys at school, to the wide Miami sky that offers him so much hope if he would just look up.) There’s also the perfectly-timed music selection. I mean, is there a more illustrative song for Chiron’s and Kevin’s relationship than Aretha’s “One Step Ahead”? This line alone bears the weight of their bond: It’s too late to be free, can’t you see?/ I'm only one step ahead of your love.

I’ve gone longer than I wanted, so here are two final questions for the group: 1) Were there any aspects in how the story was told that you thought could’ve been improved upon? And 2) Why is this film a success in your eyes?

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Cord: I think the film achieves success on a number of fronts, but one I'll point out is that this is a black story that has nothing to do with the influence of white people — indeed, as Jason noted, there aren't even any white characters. I really like the movie 12 Years a Slave. I love Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. But it always feels like a small victory to watch a dramatic film about black people that isn't about how black characters are responding to racism. I think those kinds of films are important — anti-black racism is one of America's most protracted and intractable issues — but I also think it's important that people of color be allowed to share all of our narratives, not just the ones in which white people serve as the catalyst for black people's reactions.

Why <i>Moonlight</i> Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie   Courtesy A24
“Seeing two young black men hold one another on-screen — not because they’re gay, but because they both wanted to be held — is so rare as to be revolutionary.” —Cord Jefferson

Anupa: Here are the minor adjustments to the Moonlight of my mind: more Juan (more Mahershala Ali, always), and eliminating the scene where Black reconciles with his mother. Initially I found it a bit too neat, the regretful addict pitifully attempting to atone. It was the only part of the film that felt familiar because I'd seen it before, elsewhere. But that’s also selfish — from what we know about Jenkins’s life, it’s conceivably a true detail — and cutting one of the only shaky resolutions Chiron actually gets would probably make Moonlight feel like outright tragedy porn.

I saw Moonlight and read Brit Bennett’s new novel, The Mothers, within the same week. Both made me cry about a million tears, and left me thinking about the deep, deep trauma of our teenage years. The accretion of interpersonal interactions from that time, positive and negative, directly informs how we cope with and survive the rest our lives. It’s gotta be as much of a catalyst for behavioral patterns as infancy. Watching Moonlight I think we can find hope for Little, who has Juan and Teresa on his side, and Black, who is self-sufficient and able to re-connect with Kevin, but my chest still feels tight thinking about teenage Chiron enduring high school. It wasn’t just that he was fearful, awkward, lonely, dogged by misfortune — it’s that his jeans were too small. And kids can be so, so awful about dumb shit like that. I feel silly dwelling on a hem length given the major traumas Chiron (and Bennett’s protagonist) experience — but, fuuuuck, Moonlight, and The Mothers, are a reminder of how violent the transition from childhood to adulthood is for all of us, even the ‘normals.’ This unearthed some of my own, repressed memories of how precise and brutal adolescent groupthink can be. Unmoored from the cocoon of group behavior, I'm confronting being both recipient and perpetrator of real cruelty. And art that can so effectively cut through our constructed facades feels like a success, to me.

Patrick: I can't really think of any aspects of the story I wished were different. When it ended, I had a thought that only happens once in a while when watching movies with characters I've grown abnormally attached to: I could keep watching this forever.

I think there are many things working in unison to make Moonlight as affecting as it is, not least the performances, particularly Mahershala Ali as Juan and Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, but really everyone. But I think more than anything, it was that magic factor that I mentioned earlier that makes it one of, if not the best film I've seen this year. Jason was right to call it "idyllic movie-making" — the dream sequences felt tangible and reality felt like a dream, or, more often in this film, like a nightmare. The colors were at times so vivid they looked fake, which, like Anupa, reminded me a bit of the hyperreality that Malik Hassan Sayeed and Hype Williams conjured in Belly.

The magic persisted even when Chiron was grown. The restaurant that Kevin works at, with its piss-yellow lighting and blood-red vinyl booths, was designed to feel like a different world entirely, like someplace between heaven and hell, where time passes slowly, if at all. It was a pretty perfect setting for the film's anti-climax, helping bring to life the utter strangeness of seeing someone important for the first time in a long time. Kevin and Chiron's interaction in the diner goes on for a while — too long, some might argue. But for a few surreal minutes it's nice to imagine that they might never get up and leave, that they'll just stay in that moment forever, smiling at each other and drinking wine out of cups. When the spell breaks, it shatters your heart.

Why <i>Moonlight</i> Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie   Courtesy A24
Why Moonlight Is A Small Miracle Of A Movie