Halfway through the first act of Moonlight, the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), a hounded-looking boy turns to a man he thinks might be a father figure and asks him, “what’s a faggot?”
Sitting around the table, the man who has plucked the quivering child out of the mean streets several times already by this point inthe film, shoots a quick look at his girlfriend, who expertly guides him, with no more than a facial expression or two, through the right words to say. A faggot is a word people use to make gay people feel bad about themselves, he tells the shamefaced child, but it’s also a word that some gay people … here the woman, named Teresa, (played by afro-cyborgian rock star Janelle Monáe effortlessly transformed into a ’round the way girl for the film) quickly shuts down his attempt at queer theory 101. Instead, she nudges him let their primary message reverberate through the boy’s traumatized body: words are weapons, and in this place we all live in, they can certainly break your bones. But if you choose to go the way your blood beats, there will be people like us there to meet you.
There is no dad at this table. By the end of the scene, the boy has fled Teresa’s home, after wringing a humiliating confession from her boyfriend Juan (played by the steely Mahershala Ali, currently thrilling fans as the villainous Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage television series). Juan, the boy knows, is the drug dealer who is selling the crack to his addicted mom (played in all three stages of his coming-of-age by Naomie Harris). This is a plot twist that, in lesser hands, would reek of melodrama or blaxploitation. But Jenkins’ fearless and patient direction never lets the aching home truths of the screenplay that Tarell McCraney has adapted from his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue turn into a morality tale. Instead, we have in Moonlight (the film) a masterful three-acter that I left the theatre calling, in conscious nod to Ntozake Shange, For Colored Boys who have Considered Hypermasculinity when the Crack Wars got too Ruff.
A little glib, I know, but my alternate title does roughly approximate the story arc of the protagonist, played in each of the three acts of his life by a new actor: the prepubescent Little (Alex R. Hibbert); the teenage Chiron (an unforgettable Ashton Sanders); and, finally, as the adult man Black, at whose first screen entrance the audience may confuse for the reappearance of Juan, so exactly does actor Trevante Rhodes slip into the skin and corporeal schema of the man who, it turns out, maybe was Little’s father figure after all.
This is not a story about the “cool pose” young black men adopt in order to survive, however, nor a parable of how the “code of the streets” produce a wild violence that can only be tamed by the narrative arrival of white knight or white savior figure. It is a love story about two boys who found a way of touching each other once, in an impossibly brief beach idyll, and then careened through life as best they could wearing each others bruises under their skin.
Readers of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, or the DC poetry of Essex Hemphill, may recognize the world of dangers confronting Little/Chiron/Black in Messrs. Jenkins and McCraney’s Florida, a brown and black world achingly reconstructed from their own childhoods in that state. The chopped and screwed soundtrack is liquorice-thick with love for the bounce and drawl of a black Floridian life that is springing up from what we might think of, with the work of Alexandra Vazquez in mind, as the mudsill of the Caribbean. This mudsill sociality cannot be prettified, but it cannot be talked down to either. Moonlight grants no Scarface-like glamor to the drug-dealing, gang-banging life, choosing to spend its time lingering in the folds and fissures of the human clay out of which such soldiers are kilned.
As the gangly boy-turned-muscle mary (a feat so reminiscent for me of “Rocky” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an movie classic which has been on my mind because of this week’s TV remake starring Laverne Cox), Trevante Rhodes looks so brittle he could break. His performance serves us the necessary reminder that as much as black boys and men are dying from police bullets, they are also dying to be touched. To be held, fed, sexed, and loved.
His love interest-turned-nemesis Kevin, also played by three actors, is the sort of freewheeling lothario we all knew at one point, the charming cad who hopes to wink through life on promises he never intends to keep. It is fully believable when he turns Chiron out one night, and then punches him in the face in school the next day. “Stay down!” Kevin whispers to Chiron after he decks him, in a tone that makes you desperately want to believe that his are fistfuls of love. It is a scene of abjection that Darieck Scott would call “extravagant”. If mudsill black masculinity entails a constant shadowboxing with the “big black buck” image that might save your life (when it doesn’t get you killed), then “staying down” might be more than a survival strategy. It might be an erotic pose of its own, a sexual compact with those bruising and battering fists.
Moonlight is a noticeably chaste film for an era of ubiquitous sex tapes and raunchy pop. But the poetry of its repression is never in the service of some figment of respectability. It instead works to slow down the “implicit bias” of the anti-black gaze, to stroke its itchy trigger finger, and force it to absorb the subtle changes the blueblack and redbone boy lovers must go through, if they would find their way to an adult reckoning.
That both (openly straight) Jenkins and (openly gay) McCraney can now publicly discuss their own personal trauma of being raised by crack-addicted mothers lends the film’s arrival in cinemas this weekend a deserved gravitas. Autobiography certainly raises the stakes around the performance of Harris as the protagonist’s mom Paula, a role who could easily turn into a tragic spectacle or another exercise in blaming the victim. By no means is this Paula’s story; but the audience I sat with never turned against her as she struggled, with what limited means were available to her, to make a way out of no way for herself and her only child. That Theresa is able to step in as a surrogate with such understated and non-rivalrous capacity (the two women never share a scene) just speaks that much more eloquently to the enduring wonders of “love’s austere and lonely offices.”
There may be those who feel such stories of dereliction, abuse, and fugitivity are simply too dangerous to tell in public; to tell stories from the mudsill may be too pathologizing of black life in this moment of danger (but when is black life not in danger? When is storytelling not a risky act?). Notwithstanding, it is clear that Jenkins and McCraney stand with those who are ready to bring the pain that never hurts (those who believe, in Sufi terms, that one must feed the demon or, in self-help jargon, that one must “feel it to heal it”). This is a film that knows in its bones that only way out is through. And the honesty, measure, and even the joy and beauty with which it takes us there, lends a vibrant new myth for bluegum boys of all colors, and those of us who want and need them in our world.