Moonlight: Powerful, quiet, heartbreaking movie

The newly released movie Moonlight is a very quiet film with a powerful impact. It’s absorbing, thought-provoking and emotionally exhausting, with performances that are breathtaking. But I wonder if anyone is going to go to see it. The 16-screen theater where we saw it this afternoon offered only one showing—at 3:30—in a dine-in screening room that seated only 50 people.

If that limited availability is typical, it’s very unfortunate, because Moonlight should be on everyone’s watch list.

The story follows the main character, Chiron, from his childhood years in a struggling African-American neighborhood in Miami, through high school and young adulthood. He’s a quiet [almost completely silent, actually]  kid—ignored by his drug-addicted mother, bullied by his neighbors and classmates, and mentored—for a time—by a drug dealer who has retained a sense of decency. We follow Chiron as he grows up, with the three stages of his life portrayed by three different actors [each of whom gives a stunning performance.] It’s a heartbreaking story.

But beyond summarizing the plot, it’s almost impossible to describe this movie. Unlike many of the formulaic movies that draw big box office returns, Moonlight does not fit well into a single category.

It’s not a “black” movie—although all of its characters are African-Americans, its setting is a black community in Miami, and there’s a lot of vernacular that this aging white lady in a suburban bubble doesn’t usually hear. Unfortunately, AMC Theatres apparently thinks it is, indeed, a “black” movie. How do I know? Because 4 out of 5 of the previews that precede it are movies featuring predominantly black actors. That categorization does this movie—and all audiences—a disservice. “Moonlight” focuses on black characters, but tells a story that is far broader.

It’s also not just a “coming out” or “gay” movie, although the main character is bullied, as a child and throughout middle- and high-school, by others who call him a “faggot.” It takes him years to discover who he is, and even more years to accept and act on that aspect of his identity.

Nor is it a “love story,” in the conventional sense. You could say that Chiron eventually learns to accept himself, and discovers that he is capable of loving someone else, and saying so out loud. But you don’t get that until very late in his story—and the future of that self-actualization is not certain.

I can’t comment on the verisimilitude of the story and the characters, because I’ve lived a completely different—privileged, protected, insulated—life. But I don’t think you need to have lived Chiron’s life to appreciate the damaging effect that parental rejection and cultural ostracism can have on a person, regardless of skin color, culture, socio-economic circumstances, neighborhood or other factors. Chiron is oppressed—for reasons he doesn’t understand and can’t control—and repressed as a result. His is not just “black” suffering, it is human pain.

I don’t know what else to say. I’m sure there’s a lot that I missed and didn’t understand because of who I am. But that didn’t stop me from aching for Chiron as a human being.

The Hollywood establishment has believed, for essentially its entire history, that “nobody” [meaning, of course, white people] will go to movies with African-Americans in lead roles. Please seek out this remarkable film—primarily because it’s just a damn good movie—and, as a by-product, to prove them wrong.