Moonlight: A Transcendent Spiritual Experience
Immigrant Stories, Immigrant Lives
Shiama Ali, edited by Alexander Lynn
(Author’s note: I am a 19-year-old Afghani student who must take English101 to fulfill the requirements of my major. The last essay I wrote, on the great African American novelist James Baldwin, was outright rejected by my professor because I failed to refer to the literary tools I have learned from Aristotle, Toulmin and Carl Rogers. For this rhetorical analysis of the film Moonlight I gratuitously inserted reference to these authorities, and I got a grade of “B.” My writing tutor, however, insisted that this piece is publishable. We talked about taking out the gratuitous references, which manifestly disrupt the flow of the narrative. However, we agreed that the evidence they give of the reach of white supremacy into every corner of our lives outweighed the harm it did to the flow. Therefore, the following is the “B” paper exactly as it was presented to my professor.)
Written by Shiama Ali, Edited by Alexander Lynn,
Introduction Moonlight is a work of art which reflects deep social contradictions. It is a Hollywood movie which at once had a two-three week stay, on average, in theatres around the country, and at the same time won the Oscars for Best Movie of the Year. That’s a contradiction. The film has been understood and presented by the entertainment media as a story about “being Black and Gay.” This reviewer and many other people who saw the movie witnessed many competing themes: the effect of the peak of the crack epidemic, early 1990’s, on a Miami ghetto; the commonness of American “families” with no fathers; the difference between love as warmth, closeness, trust and support, on one hand, and love as a sex act, on the other. While each of the foregoing is human problems, this film depicts only Black folk; only Americans of African descent make it onto this screen — in this, it can be said that it is a movie about the experience of the African American community.
Parallel to the numerous themes in the movie are the wide spectrum of responses to it. The movie is, in this connection, a cultural phenomenon. These responses have come in 360 degrees of variation.
This rhetorical analysis is one degree of those 360, and is based in the sense that to the extent that this movie can be said to be about being Gay and Black, to that same degree does the story very effectively show that each of the other major social strains depicted are necessary to truly understand the “Black and Gay” strain. Taking each of the above-listed social contradictions together, it is the thesis of this rhetorical analysis that the antidote to, the resolution of, these contradictions lies somewhere in the possibility of, and need for, Black men to be able to love themselves and each other.
A Note on Method In performing this rhetorical analysis, this reporter will draw from the Aristotelian Three Types of Persuasive Appeals, as well as concepts of rhetorical analysis and argumentation from Toulmin and Rogers.
Being “soft” and being “hard” This story takes place in Miami’s impoverished Black community during the heart of the 1990’s crack epidemic. The scene of a drug deal taking place opens up with the song “Every Nigga is a Star” playing in the background. This is the “hard” “remix” of the very popular Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star,” from 45 years ago. Juan, the biggest drug dealer in this neighborhood, asks his runner how business is going. His employee says “everything is everything,” in other words, it’s going OK. Juan asks him how his mother is, and if she’s gotten through her illness. He tells his employee to “Send her my prayers.”
Cocaine is sold in both “soft” form — powder to be snorted (the “White suburban way”), or “hard,” in rock form to be smoked — crack. In the above image on the corner, the “hardest person in the ‘hood,” the crack dealer, is concerned about this runner’s mother’s health, and commits to pray for her — not exactly the stereotype of being “hard.” In the next scene, Little, the protagonist, at age seven, is being chased by some other boys his age who are calling him a faggot, and want to do him physical harm. Little retreats into an abandoned building by breaking through a window. He then barricades himself in. Juan finds Little in what turns out to be his stash house — the place where he secures his hoard of crack. With a look of deep concern on his face he asks Little, “Whatchu doin’ in here Little Man?” Little does not respond, but Juan shows in the expression on his face that he knows Little is being persecuted. He takes him up, brings him out for lunch; rides him around in his car, and talks to him. Little does not talk.
(Claim) In this opening scene, the “hardest” man in the neighborhood, and the “softest” — Little is identified as Gay because he does not like to fight, and because he’s shy — begin a collaboration. Juan brings Little to his house to meet his girlfriend, and little stays with them for awhile before Juan convinces him to let him know where his mother lives; at which point he drives Little home.
(Grounds) In later scenes, Little’s mother, who is addicted to crack, has men over to the house. Little has to wait outside while she does with these men what she has to do to get money for crack from them. This is a “hard” scene. However, there are also scenes of love and affection between mother and Little. In these scenes the mother is humanized. She’s not defined by her crack addiction — “crack head” — she’s a human being who is “suffering from a disease [addiction] for which there is no known cure” (Narcotics Anonymous). “Recovery is possible…” (NA).
Of nuclear families and human families In another “hard” scene, Juan notices a car at one of his dealing spots, which looks like people are smoking his crack in it — Crack cannot be smoked at the same place where it is bought; that’s bad for business. He goes over to the car, and it is Little’s mother with a man. He grabs Little’s mother out of the car and begins to chastise her for her transgressions of good manners. To this, she takes a long drag off the pipe and then launches into him: “What?! You gonna raise my child?! While you selling me rocks?!” This is a contradiction that plays itself out on street corners and in houses in ghetto neighborhoods all across the country everyday — young men, who are otherwise unemployable, are, yes, supporting “their families” by selling drugs… to their families. This is one of the most accurate depictions I’ve ever seen of this ubiquitous issue: She demands, “Are you gonna tell him why the others boys are always kicking his ass?” She gets ready to call her son a faggot, when Juan cautions her not to go there. But she’s already made her point — a real father is going to protect his son from that type of social humiliation, and not sell crack to his mother. She concludes, “You aint shit,” which merely proves that a real mother is not going to have fights with crack dealers in the street. But, the film insists that neither of them is a lost cause, unredeemable.
This movie depicts no nuclear families — mommy, daddy, three blood kids, Fido the dog and Patches the cat, two cars in the garage, and the white picket fence. From my experience, this nuclear family is largely mythical. Mommy’s on crack, and Juan and Teresa, his girl friend, take Little in. The film has three segments, three successive stages in Little’s life. (Ethos) He becomes Chiron (his birth name) ten years after the opening scene. He has been adopted by Teresa and Juan (not legally). Teresa, “You know this is your home. You can stay here any time you want.” She then teaches him how to make “his” bed. My experience of my own people, Afghanis, is of extended family; and the extended family is not always based in blood; it is based in who is taking care of who, and it is based in community and love. I have read enough African American history and know enough about the families of my African American friends to know that this “adoption” of Little by Juan and Teresa is common, basic to the family ways of African Americans. So common that the concept “adopted” is looked at as Western, as a way of addressing family members that is foreign to the culture of folk. Slavery did not allow nuclear families. But since then African American adults have taken care of African American children, and African Americans who do not have a place to live are routinely taken in by others in the community. This scene was convincing because it mirrored my life experience. Teresa tells Chiron, “And stop putting your head down in my house. You know my rule: It’s all love and all pride in this house. Do you feel me?” I felt her.
He becomes “Black” in his late twenties when he has become a drug dealer himself; he has become “hard,” and tells younger men in his employ how to live. Earlier, in his late teens, his best friend, Kevin, used to call him “Black.” “Why you always call me that?” Kevin explains that this is his nickname for his friend. From my experience, it is a very common nickname in the African American community, and it does not reference a dark skin color. It is a way of including someone. I have African American friends who call me “Black;” “What’s good, Black?” “How you doin’, Black?” I have fairly light skin. I never had to ask them what that meant. I could tell that it is a term of endearment, that it is a way of saying I’m a part of their crew, I’m a family member. This is what Kevin was saying to a teenager who ultimately did not have a “crew,” was not popular, had very few friends; “You’re family; you’re part of my crew.”
Aristotelian sex and Rogerian love This section was included in this rhetorical analysis for two reasons: (1) to give my professor the impression that I was relying on some Greek dude from 2,600 years ago to understand my own community, and (2) for humor’s sake.
Love scenes and sex scenes (language and tone) This movie is about love, and it moves at one mile an hour. If the heralded series “the Wire,” depicting life in the exact same neighborhood (in a different city, Baltimore), could be said to be 80% stereotype, because of the lack of depth of the characters (and other lies), this film is the opposite. There is no fast moving action, no shoot-em-up drama. The story moves so slowly through the expressions on each character’s face, so slowly through the carefully chosen words each character uses to express one feeling, that the audience gets to be part of the conversation — the conversation between would-be fathers and sons, between lovers, between best friends.
No character is a stereotype, one-dimensional. Each character is afforded enough space to show context for her actions, to express what leads her to which conclusions, or what has caused him to choose to go in this direction instead of that. Even the bully, who regularly stomps Chiron for his alleged Gayness, is multi-dimensional. In his body language the definition of homophobia as “fear that I might be Gay” comes through, as he seems fascinated with touching Chiron.
It is in the slowness of the presentation that the writer/director shows the love between the characters, gives love to these characters, and allows the audience a chance to love them.
(Logos) To the reviewers, critics and promoters, I am here to witness that there were exactly two sex scenes in the entire movie — twenty seconds each: One outdoors scene where Little’s best friend, Kevin, is having intercourse with a girl (whose face we don’t get to see). The other is of Kevin and Chiron kissing. That’s it as far as sex.
In the closing scene, when a 28-year-old Black has decided to embrace his love for Kevin, we are treated to the image of him falling to sleep with his head on Kevin’s shoulder. If this movie was about sex, Hollywood knows how to depict sex scenes. No, this movie was about love.
There were much more love scenes: Juan taking Little into the water; he has Little lie on his back while he supports his head with his large hand under it, while his other hand is holding him up under his back; he’s teaching Little how to float. He insists, “I gotchou man. Don’t worry, I aint gone’ let you drown.” It’s warmth, affection, physical closeness between a thirty-five year old man and a seven-year-old boy.
There’s the scene where Kevin tries to teach Little how to protect himself against the bullies. Little says, “I’m not soft.” And Kevin says, “Yeah, I know, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t show them that.” And Kevin proceeds to engage him in a wrestling match, which could easily double as a prolonged hug.
(Pathos) Most of the scenes are of intimacy of one kind or another: It is not until 20 minutes into the story that Little utters his first words. He’s eating dinner with Juan and Teresa, and Teresa tells him, “You can’t keep eating here, staying here, hangin’ here if you don’t talk.” Little turns to Juan and asks him. “What’s a faggot?” These are his first spoken words of the film. Juan tells him, “It’s a name people use to put down Gays.” He then asks him, “Are you a drug dealer?” Finally, he asks Juan, “Am I a faggot?” Juan tells him, “No, you’re not a faggot. You might be Gay, but that doesn’t mean you have to let anybody call you a faggot.” There are no social scientists in the movie, so there is no one there to explain that a prepubescent child (meaning literally, a non-sexual being) can be neither Gay nor hetero.
Intimacy, closeness — this is the “action” from one scene to the next. Kevin says some things make him feel like crying, and Black (Chiron) responds, “Shit, I cry so much sometimes, I feel like I’m gon’ turn into drops.”
Kevin: “And just role into the ocean, right? Like all those other mutha fuckas out here, tryna drown thay sorrows.”
Chiron: “Why you say that?’
Kevin: “I’m just listening to you, nigga. Sounds like somethin’ you wanna do.”
Chiron: “I wanna do a lot of things that don’t make sense.”
Kevin: “I didn’t say it don’t make sense.” Through a Rogerian approach, Kevin has found common ground with his best friend.
Conclusion I have a dear friend who had a homophobic reaction to what he heard about the film. His comment was, “If you cannot get through the trailer, the film is unwatchable.” The trailer showed a sex scene between two Black men, and therefore, “the film is promoting Gayness among Black men” (not a quote from my friend, Toussaint, but an elaboration on what his fear was). As you can see, I think this movie is very important, and also, just as being a drug dealer does not make a person the devil, so too does homophobia not drop my friend out of the human race. So, I employed the Rogerian common ground principle. Two days later, I approached my friend: “Toussaint, I just saw that trailer you’re talking about. I see what you mean about the ‘white supremacist conspiracy to feminize the Black man…’ That is how the entertainment industry is portraying this flick, but it’s not like that.”
I was able to hold him in the conversation, talk about the images of love between Black father figures and little boys, a universally impactful image for Black men. He disclosed that this may be why the movie isn’t urgent to him. He said he always had much affection from his father. “Even today, he’s always huggin’ on me and kissin’ me. Some of my friends make fun of me ’cause of the way I put my arm around them and hug them all the time.”
I let him know of two other friends of ours who are coming to my house to see the film with me. (Xfinity has already put the film into our cabled-up homes…). He transformed from not being able to get through the trailer to, “I’ll hear their feedback and then maybe I’ll check it out…”
The writer and director may have sought to portray the complexity of, and importance of understanding the conditions under which love takes place, including that between Black, Gay men. It is more likely that they chose the nexus of two Black men who love each other as the prism through which to see how important it is, through all that we are facing, to love each other. It may be that the prism of two Black men loving each other was chosen because, at this historical moment, it was the one which was most effective.