Eleven years ago, the film Brokeback Mountain rocked my world.
It was difficult to imagine a work of art that would have a more profound effect on my ongoing coming out process (what I prefer to call a journey of “living your truth”) until last December, when Moonlight arrived from a magical someplace and left me in my theater seat a humbled, woke, emotional train wreck of a man, all in the most possible life-affirming and wondrous ways imaginable.
Moonlight has the potential to be about so many things to so many people, it would be foolish to try and pigeonhole it without acknowledging its core appeal: it’s a film about the human condition. Yes, these are beautifully flawed characters of color, but in each of them we can find a little (or large) piece of ourselves. Director Barry Jenkins made the careful choice of framing Moonlight as a universal coming-of-age tale whose protagonists just happen to be Black and surviving the often bleak environs of the Liberty City section of Miami.
As with any coming-of-age story, sexuality and identity play major roles in the development of the main character, alternatively known as Little, Chiron and Black. But to call Moonlight strictly a “gay” film does it a terrible disservice, since what all of the boys and men experience in the movie’s three chapters has a lot more do with the pitfalls and irreversible damage of toxic masculinity. When we first see the adult Chiron, his startling physical transformation—what portraying actor Trevante Rhodes calls “physical armor” —shocks and mesmerizes. Muscle-bound with gold-plated grillz on his teeth, this is a man whose evolution from skinny kid to prison-hardened swagger is hiding some deep and painful truths.
In the fact that Chiron is the product of forces both internal and external, he is not unlike any of us who “front” to fit in. What makes his story particularly wrenching is that whether it was through the accepting fatherly guidance of drug dealer Juan, the motherly tenderness shown by Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, or the “I got your back” support from best friend Kevin, the foundations were there for Chiron to live his truth. Beyond his reach, however, were the larger societal definitions and expectations of what it means to be masculine that are found in places like drug-riddled neighborhoods, the media and, of course, at school, where several of the film’s characters meet unfortunate twists of fate.
The dichotomy is especially strong in young Kevin, who alternates between being the sensitive buddy, the schoolyard bully and the hypersexualized ladies man, depending on the cloak he has to put on in any given situation. We also see it in Juan, tough talking crack peddler one minute, tearful and remorseful the next. To a lesser degree, but no less significant, is Chiron’s merciless tormentor, Terrel, who seems to masking some deep-seeded issues. Even Chiron’s own mother, Paula, mocks and mimics the soft way her son walks. The fact Chiron may or may not be gay is almost irrelevant—he is a quiet and painfully withdrawn outsider, as vulnerable to the torment as he is to the love shown by surrogate dad Juan and best bud Kevin.
It’s not until the final act of Moonlight that we see the full redemptive power of letting go, opening up and redefining identity in ways that work for us. The fact that it’s Kevin that brings Chiron to this clarity is no coincidence—Kevin has gone through his own catharsis and reached a place where he’s at peace with himself and his tortured past. The inseparable bond these two damaged men formed on a moonlit beach ten years earlier has brought them to a place and time where they can stand in a kitchen and just “be” with one another, with no pretense, no machismo, no noise from the outside world. The movie’s penultimate shot may be ambiguous in sexual terms, but it clearly shows a lifetime of pain, anger and crippling loneliness melting away in a single embrace.
Whether Moonlight bests La La Land to win the Best Picture Oscar remains to be seen [update February 27, 2017: it won], but like Brokeback Mountain (which inexplicably lost the top honor to Crash), the impact on viewers like me will last well beyond awards season. While Brokeback helped me feel OK about being gay, Moonlight allowed me to accept the many ways of being a man. If Moonlight did nothing else but deliver an all-too-rare portrait of marginalized communities, its legacy would be cemented. But the film goes a step further by daring us to be engaged without plot contrivances that guide us on how to feel or view the world. Through long periods of silence, the expressive look in Chiron’s eyes or major plot twists that occur offscreen, Moonlight gives us space to let it all sink in. As the credits roll and the audience files out, we leave as more enlightened humans than when we walked in.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend The Restoration Project and documentary “The Mask You Live In.”