One of the biggest criticisms that La La Land has received has to do with the way it explores the issue of race in today’s America. The fact that there were race motivated riots last year cannot be ignored. Adding insult to injury, being a musical, the film does not include any gay character. Agreeing, however, with these criticisms would entail accepting that all films must mirror its socio political context which leaves very little to fiction.
Having said that, ‘Moonlight’ is a much needed film because it portrays in a completely fresh way the reality of being a black gay man in the margins of American society. Placing the characters in the fringes of what is accepted (that is being white and affluent), the film explores love in an arrested and fragmentary way.
The beauty of ‘Moonlight’ is that it refuses to preach or victimise its characters There is no tragedy or vainilla but a minimalist naturalism where all contradictions (race, gender, sexual preference, addiction, the informal economy, etc) coexist. In Barry Jenkins’ script, being black or queer are never considered as opportunities to showcase correctness. That is why when someone said in Facebook: ‘I felt like cutting my wrists after seeing it…thank god for dark chocolate’, I didn’t know whether we had seen the same film. The fact that the person who made the comment is a migrant gay men that came to London from the arab world might make the film resonate to him in a particular way. And there lies the beauty of the film.
It is hard to sufficiently stress the relevance of such a film in an industry like Hollywood which has accustomed us to see gay characters as ‘bitchy, queeny and mean’ (‘Will and Grace’) or ‘tragic, lonely and potentially deadly” (‘Philadelfia’). In a time when gay masculinity seems to evaporate in the materialism of a narcissistic culture, this film pushes the characters towards the camera in order to make them live not through their anger but through understanding one another.
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s theatre play ‘Moonlight Black Boys Blue’, the film follows a man in three moments of his life. At the beginning, Chiron is 9 years old and is bullied by his schoolmates. Feeling awkward and isolating, he catches the attention of a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who becomes the father figure that he does not have if it is born in mind that his mom is a crack addict and a prostitute. As his mom, Naomie Harris creates a bipolar character that switches from dysfunctional overprotection to cruel negligence. Then we see Chiron as a teenager trying to come to terms with himself and, apparently, failing. Hesitant and shy, he increasingly isolates behind a wall of muscles and silence.
But Jenkins, who apart from writing the script, is the director, deploys a subjective camera to show what goes wrong in their lives and an objective one to showcase the beauty that surrounds them. Thus we find visual jewels such as the drug dealer/father figure teaching Chiron how to swim presented as a Michelangelesque Pietà. The way Jenkins uses the visual resources of film as a medium allows him to inject humanistic optimism in what otherwise would have been too depressing a film. Without exception all characters find a moment to undo their stereotype. The drug dealer/father figure instead of forcing Chiron (as it might have been expected) to join him in his ‘trade’, teaches him how to swim and tells him not to be ashamed of his sexuality. The drug addict mother instead of ending badly, manages to get well enough to say sorry to her son. Where Brokeback Mountain used to rigid, Moonlight is protean.
According to Jenkins, homosexuality is not a flaw but a damaged identity (due to self rejection and bullying) which does not necessarily lead to denial and loneliness but, instead, to create alternative ways to love in which an ‘I love you’ might not always fit the bill. This is not white and politically correct gayness, Ricky Martin or Ellen Degeneres-style, because there is no one to watch and this might be the big difference between a film like La La Land and one like Moonlight. While the former considers success as likeability, the latter understands it as survival through self acceptance. Maybe the kind of love that we listen to in songs is not the kind of love that allows us to experience it. ‘Moonlight’ shows us that sometimes a silent look is worth more than a husband, two kids and a swimming pool. J A T