I won’t lie. It’s been difficult to want to write about pop culture right now. Not after Donald Trump was elected president.
That election was followed by a wave of racialized attacks, now that a man who ran on white nationalist rhetoric is going to be the leader of the free world. A week in which the former editor of Breitbart – a alt-right website praised by white supremacists, with a “black crime” section – is going to be in the White House.
Dave Chappelle tried to save us, hosting Saturday Night Live. His monologue’s jokes packed terror alongside the kind of weathered hope built from tragedy and struggle. The kind of hope that black people know, the kind of hope Barack Obama spoke of eight years ago, but went unheeded amid a wave of imagined racial absolution from the majority.
The gallows humor of Chappelle and Chris Rock at an election night viewing party amid a sea of despondent white liberals pretty much encapsulated my week on Facebook.
It was almost painful to watch SNL, because this was the same show that had Trump host a year ago as he ran for office. Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton played the recently deceased Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a dirge. Her boss helped normalize a man whose presidency would seek to erode her rights as a gay woman.
So at a time when my spirit needed some life, it came Sunday morning. I saw the wonderful, emotionally compelling Moonlight.
A story told in three parts, Moonlight follows Chiron, a black boy growing up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood while dealing with a crack-addicted mother and his budding homosexuality.
In some ways, this structure seems similar to the generally acclaimed Richard Linklater film Boyhood. But unlike the arguable gimmick of shooting that film in real time over 12 years, Moonlight chooses different actors for the principle characters in each part. Barry Jenkins’ direction has each actor carry their personality traits through simple but strong gestures and attitudes.
Also, Moonlight stands apart in how it doesn’t fixate on the usual milestones in an average life. It uses a few formative moments to sketch Chiron’s life, and those scenes play out in such a naturalistic way. Even if the film’s ending feels too writerly than real, the emotional power of the film washes over you in waves that carry you away, like when drug dealer/father figure Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, a scene that feels baptismal.
This film pushes on the spirit by centering on the black male body.
A lot of scholarship on black Americans concentrates on concepts of the body, because it was our labor that made us valuable. Our bodies are why our ancestors were stolen from Africa in the first place. Our skin ascribes much of our lives, and we can’t change the color.
Moonlight joins that tradition. It opens with Chiron as a child, running from bullies who would harm him. As we progress through the three sections, we see his mother lose her beauty and grow frail as her body is ravaged by drugs. Chiron as a teenager undergoes ecstasy and pain both physical and emotional.
It also shows that black male body as beauty, when we see Chiron as an adult. His musculature is imposing and sculpted, and Jenkins’ camera lingers on his dark skin, which shines as much as his gold grills.
We see that black male body as love and desire, through Chiron’s dreams of his childhood friend, Kevin. In the final third of the film, when Kevin cooks a meal for Chiron, the camera captures the passion of in Kevin’s concentrated face and firm, gentle hands in the kitchen.
And, within that beautiful, black male body of the adult Chiron, we also see tragedy. Movements of the plot connect the homophobic bullying of Chiron to the drug trade and the school-to-prison pipeline. Chiron, who was so skinny and underfed as a young child and teenager, now looks like vintage 50 Cent, all muscles and gold.
It’s a prison body. It’s a body that Chiron has built, muscle by muscle, as a fortress around his battered heart.
Moonlight, in all these artful ways, says black lives matter without ever uttering the phrase. Only in its totally did the movie overtake me in its melancholic beauty. It’s what I should have expected from Jenkins, who also wrote and directed the poetic Medicine for Melancholy.
My Sunday in the darkened theater gave me a chance to hold on to my sadness of the past week, and still find roses growing out of the concrete. Moonlight showed how much we continue to persist, if not for a chance to start again, at least to find love and tenderness.
Just like Moonlight in its ending, I want some love and tenderness at the end of these long days. Within that love and tenderness, I can have a place where I can be home and drop my own bodily and mental fortress.
Without categories, without contexts, without the world outside, in this moment I can be my most authentic, rooted self.
That I, too, can be that boy at the ocean’s edge, in the moonlight.