2017-02-12 06:01

Johannesburg - ‘I cry so much sometimes, I feel like I’ma turn to drops,” says the teenage Chiron to his friend Kevin. They’re on the beach, in the light of the moon. The sentence is loaded.

Where they come from – Miami’s Liberty City housing projects – a boy’s confession of weakness undermines his masculinity. And masculinity is power.

But the soon-to-be lovers are in a temporary safe zone, hearts pounding, acknowledging their weakness in a film that is as much defined by what it does not do as by what it does. It refuses to offer stereotypes of black masculinity, exhibit black pain for white consumption, sensationalise its gayness or create tropes of its characters.

This is a film of staggering beauty; a collection of character studies that get under the skin of manhood.

The same approach defines the man who becomes a father figure to Chiron (who is known as Little as a boy and Black as a man, with three actors playing him at different ages). On this same beach, Juan taught Little to swim in a scene of bonding and trust. At home with his girlfriend Teresa, Juan offers Chiron hot meals and domestic stability away from his mother and her ever-damaging crack habit. But Juan is a well-known crack dealer.

Moonlight does not humanise its characters, as one critic noted, because they are human all along.

It refuses to reduce Juan to a stereotype, yet it also insists on facing the truth.

“My mama does drugs?” Little asks Juan at dinner one night. “And you sell drugs?” There’s silence as this sinks in and Juan reels.

It’s not just the shifting, lingering camera, the beautifully woven score, the dislocated narrative structure, the space given to silence and the unspoken, it’s the act of love with which Moonlight is made.

The film is based on a play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins. Even though they never met as boys, they were both raised by crack-addicted mothers in the same housing projects.

“Moonlight,” wrote journalist OA Scott in the New York Times, “dwells on the dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies; on the existential and physical matter of black lives.”

It does not do so by placing black life at a counterpoint to white life (and I am uneasy even to be reviewing a film about black life as a white man). It does so by immersing its story in blackness. There are no white characters anywhere in the film. It zooms in on its neighbourhood and then it zooms even closer into its characters’ hearts and humanity, their flaws and their inner strength. It refuses to linger on tropes of social misery, but instead examines the inner life of men and a journey that may or may not end well.

And it refuses to offer a romantic ending or any sense that things will get better.

Well, maybe a small sense, because the scene at the end where Kevin cooks Black, now a drug dealer himself, dinner in his diner, is better than sex. It’s dripping with awkwardness, tied by historical bonds, woven with human empathy and it speaks volumes with almost no words.


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