By Zimasa Mpemnyama
Moonlight is a movie which tells the story of a black man (and many black men to be honest) growing up in the ghetto, while struggling with sexuality, trauma, violence and love. I wrote these notes while watching the movie for the second time in less that 24 hours.
The story is that of a young boy, Chiron, whose nickname is ‘Black’ (not for any political reason, as far as I can tell, but because his skin is dark, beautiful and leathery), who grows up in a cold, abusive home. His dad is absent, we are never told who he is or where he could be. He is just absent. A reality for many black homes – fathers who disappear like the Great Houdini. His mother struggles with substance abuse. She loves him, but is not loving. The trauma of not being loved adequately eats away at Chiron’s self confidence. He walks with a hunched back and his eyes are always on the floor.
Chiron is bullied nonstop but finds solace in silence. In water. In the wind. And in a friend.
Violence, in the form of physical violence through showing the very real effects of bullying is explored. Usually in media, bullying is preserved for white children because they are perceived to be pure and possess child-like vulnerability. But, narratives are crafted such that black and poor children are incapable of being bullied, and if they are, they are always able to deal with it. Which is obviously false. So, seeing a film which is anchored on the idea of bullying and the deep psychological scars which it inflicts on black children is important.
Moonlight delicately touches on the structural violence of white supremacy and how it inevitably reproduces itself in the black community. The fact that Chiron is called “Black”, because of how dark his skin is, and the skin tone of the person Black gets attracted to, is indicative of the colourism in the black community. The complicated presence (or absence) of black men in the lives and community of black folk is excellently explored. Black’s father is absent, but he gets a father-figure, Juan, who is loving, warm and kind, but is also problematic in how he feeds into the continuation of intra-community violence. It is an old question within the black community, how do we continue loving and taking care of each other, when (unknowingly sometimes) we aid in killing each other?
There are only two prominent women in the movie, Chiron’s mother and Juan’s girlfriend. As mentioned above, Chiron’s mother is cold, calculated and unloving. On the other hand, Juan’s girlfriend, is as kind as Juan, if not more. She invites Chiron into her home with no questions asked. She cooks for him and takes care of him with her whole heart. The dichotomy of black women we are shown in this movie is tired, old and stereotypical. It’s like, if black women are not taking drugs and abusing their children then they are holier than thou and are the epitome of the ‘strong black woman’. While the movie is based on challenging stereotypes associated with black manhood, there is little nuance in looking into the complexities of black womanhood and motherhood.
As he grows, Chiron’s hard life hardens his heart, such that he doesn’t let anyone “touch” him in a sexual way. He has a veneer of confidence and self-assuredness in the world, but like most black men, he crumbles in his vulnerability. He lays alone in his bed and his muscles shrink him. On the street, he is the man. Alone in his room with his thoughts, he is still the little boy who is crushed by memories of his unloving mother and non-existent relationship with his father.
His only solace, throughout his life it seems, is his relationship with his only friend Kevin. Chiron and Kevin have a weird sexual tension from a young age, but before it develops into something worth writing home about, violence tears it apart, and leaves long-lasting scars on both boys/men. But, it seems, the only time Chiron experiences the beautiful relief and sordid pain of love, is with Kevin.
The last scene of the film is one of the most tenderest scenes between black men I have ever seen. It is beautiful, as it is unexpected.