A Glimpse Beyond: Review of Moonlight
By Darren Calhoun
Compassion calls us to enter into the pain of another. We most often do that through story, sometimes real and sometimes fictional. A film like Moonlight offers a rare opportunity to enter into the complexities of boys becoming men as they struggle to find acceptance, intimacy, and identity.
I didn't know what to expect when I first saw trailers for the film. As someone who enjoys the occasional independent film, I felt like it could be enjoyable, but I wasn't prepared for how deeply the film would move me. I came to see a movie and ended up seeing my life in art onscreen.
Moonlight is a beautiful coming-of-age story told in three acts. It follows the lead character, Chiron, through his struggles as a child, a teen, and finally an adult. The film features a talented cast, beautiful cinematography, and expertly crafted storytelling that employs the intentionality of a seasoned playwright. But what stood out most to me is the richness of an all-black cast performing the nuances of growing up black, male, and questioning of one's sexuality. Moonlight masterfully paints a vivid picture but leaves out just enough detail to allow someone like me to effortlessly fill in the blanks. In each scene, I relived moments from my youth—the emotions, the questioning, sometimes even the smells associated with certain places—moments I'd almost forgotten. And while this was a rich experience for me, the movie leaves many things unstated and unresolved. Some people who saw the movie with me were disturbed by the open-ended moments, but for me, that added to the realism of the story.
A film like Moonlight offers a rare opportunity to enter into the complexities of boys becoming men as they struggle to find acceptance, intimacy, and identity.
There is a universal value to Moonlight that is being recognized with multiple awards, including eight Oscar nominations. We see the tensions of longing, acceptance, and navigating relationships that almost any audience can connect with on a personal level. The movie also delicately portrays the swirling questions around sexual orientation, from childhood through adulthood, in ways I've never witnessed onscreen. A sexual encounter between two teen boys is depicted without nudity or any sense of voyeurism. What many people in the sexual majority may not realize is that seeing love and sexual intimacy that aren't exclusively heterosexual is a rare treat. Our society so often presents "universal stories" from a single lens, one that leaves the experiences of non-heterosexual people out. Without ever becoming preachy, this film offers a glimpse beyond a heteronormative worldview.
Lastly, Moonlight revels in the richness of an all-black cast, in a story set in a specific black context (Miami and Atlanta) without ever reducing the characters to tropes and stereotypes. The clothing, the cars, the slang all felt authentic to the point that it was as if the script was describing a specific neighborhood. Even one of the lead characters (Juan) who is a drug dealer is a nuanced individual rich with complexity and emotion, rather than a default 'bad guy' and antagonist. The schoolyard fight in the film gives insight into the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects children of color.
I hope that you'll see Moonlight. I hope you'll watch it more than once, so you can catch what you might have missed the first time. Moonlight is an opportunity to take a long look at some hard truths and hopefully connect a little deeper to the humanity that is in all of us.
Darren Calhoun is a community activist and photographer based out of Chicago, and one of ESA's Associate Fellows for Racial Justice.