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By Phil Coldiron
Liberty City, the Miami neighbourhood Barry Jenkins hails from and the setting for much of Moonlight, his exceptional second feature, has a median annual household income of under $22,000; 47% of its population lives below the United States federal poverty line, while nearly a third of working-age adults are unemployed. Grown up around Liberty Square, segregationist blocks built in the ’30s as Florida’s first venture into public housing, the area is acutely typical of the pains wrought on black communities by America’s ongoing history of structural racism: it is underserved by medical facilities and public programs, abandoned by industry, and torn apart by aggressive and unjust policing and lawmaking.
It would not be quite correct to say that the few films concerned with black lives to receive both wide distribution and critical praise in recent years have ignored such material conditions faced by the individuals and communities they’re depicting. Rather, poverty and oppression is often acknowledged quickly into drama, so that a singularly able hero might transcend it or suffer it nobly or more productively as the means for analyzing some relationship of power marked off by the distance of history. What is remarkable about Moonlight is that Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, another son of Liberty City, have crafted a film which has this place so deep in its bones that it strikes me as impossible to separate any aspect of its form from the context which produced it, and which is in turn reflected through the frame of its moving and fascinating central figure, Chiron.
The film follows Chiron across three discrete and chronologically consecutive chapters, each concerned with a specific relationship in his life. “Little,” in which he is portrayed by Alex Hibbert, covers a period of weeks or months in childhood as he comes to know Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer; “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders) follows a string of days in adolescence leading up to the moonlit moment he first acts on his desire for another man, and the violence that follows it; and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) settles into the reunion of a now-adult Chiron with Kevin (Andre Holland), the classmate involved in the second chapter’s twinned pleasure and pain. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are given the freedom to interpret Chiron in their own ways, while the character’s coherence resides in his silence. Jenkins and his actors modulate and explore the textures of this silence in fine detail, testing it at once as a fact of this particular individual’s social existence and as an aesthetic derived from the canons of global art cinema. In this sense, we can think of Jenkins as a director of what the scholar and poet Fred Moten calls rubbing, “the constant refusal and disestablishment of separation…a kind of radical indistinctness.”
As Moten, in a poem from his collection b jenkins (titled so after the poet’s mother), draws together Billie Holliday and Roland Barthes, their names situated at its beginning and end through the felt figure of “grain,” so Jenkins aims similarly to create heady, conceptually rich images which sacrifice none of their ability to work directly on the body. In what stands among the more astute artistic self-appraisals I’ve encountered, Jenkins recently tweeted, in approving response to director John Magary’s use of “marinate” in a comment on the film, that Moonlight is “food for the soul/sticks to ya ribs.” One need not dwell on the history, the meanings bound up in a recipe which has been passed through generations in order to enjoy such a meal while eating it, but it is this quality, known or not, which finally nourishes something other than the belly even as it sticks to the ribs.
But there is a crucial gap in Jenkins’ apercu: soul food implies the presence of a tradition or a heritage, while Moonlight works very nearly in the absence of one. Though this year has seen the release of Kino’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” home video set, an historical corrective of tremendous importance, and films by both Charles Burnett and Julie Dash have received theatrical revivals—in the latter case, written, as Rivette said of Cezanne, into film history by the artists (the Knowles sisters, in particular)—it remains the case that much of the most exciting moving-image work today is being produced by artists whose people have, through a litany of structural inequalities, long been denied the means and freedom to work in their own ways.
Nathaniel Mackey, in his brief, brilliant essay on radical black art, “Destination Out,” writes that “Coleman Hawkins felt no identity crisis playing an instrument invented by a Belgian.” Surveying only the best of recent work, one might think here of Frances Bodomo’s Everybody Dies!, which brushes the everyday terrors of being a black woman in America against the anodyne space of public access television, setting in stark relief both the normalization of violence and, by working in a DIY lineage of detourning such popular forms (e.g., the major films of Owen Land’s middle period, such as Remedial Reading Comprehension , or more broadly, the underground films of Jacobs, Smith, or the Kuchars), pointing towards the filmic avant-garde’s casual, consistent avoidance of race. Or of Glenn Ligon’s multi-screen installation We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, which scrubs Richard Pryor’s performance in Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) free of not just his jokes, but of his voice entirely, taking his body as the grain of a tradition and expanding it across seven screens, each linked to a part of his figure and active only when it is. Ligon thus achieves both the formal pleasures of immersive installation—the room-filling rhythmic red glow produced by Pryor’s suit comes as close to the sublime as any art I encountered this year—at the same time as he elaborates a specifically black gestural diction, isolating the ways in which meaning refuses to be contained by words alone and arguing that our language has grown insufficiently alarming in the face of the horrors it is regularly called on to describe (Ligon’s reference to waking makes clear how long this insufficiency has been known by those who suffer from it most.)
While Moonlight is more traditional in form than Bodomo’s or Ligon’s work, it seems to me to go further in its absolute focus on issues which reside inside of blackness. The film begins, briefly and subtly, with the ocean, the sound of its waves washing into Boris Gardiner’s Blaxploitation anthem, “Every N— Is a Star,” serving as an overture here as it did on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. If the rubbing of silences structures the film vertically, we might think of this rubbing between blueness and blackness as structuring it horizontally, building out its emotional breadth as Jenkins and McCraney test the various points of contact between these broad concepts. This relationship is spoken directly in the line from which the film’s title is derived. Having spent a day teaching Chiron to swim, Juan offers a bit of the sort of inscrutable truth which forms the basis of any tradition, as he recalls a night as a child in his native Cuba, when, as he ran the streets with friends, an old woman called out to him, “In moonlight, black boys look blue. You blue!” As he speaks, the camera twice drifts in a calm, downward arc from Juan’s face to Chiron’s, tying the two together in this moment of teaching and learning. Juan, played by Mahershala Ali with a gentle patience I can find no analogue for in American movies, recognizes the difficulties that Chiron will face in his life as gay black man (Moonlight shows an exceedingly rare concern for a child’s queerness) and, with this story, draws him into his family, assures him that he is not alone in the world. That Juan’s life ends in the space between chapters, and that his death is reported only obliquely, is a painful reminder of the inadequacy of words. And yet, that Jenkins is unafraid to take such silence as the ground on which he operates, and that he searches within it not for the suffering in blackness and blueness, but for the beauty which overflows such bounds, marks Moonlight as a film from which anyone could stand to learn.