“Moonlight” movie review

Warning: Spoilers.

I had very high expectations for this movie because everyone was talking about how fantastic it is but I don’t know if I would consider it as such. I rate a movie “fantastic” when it presents something new to me, something that reorders the way I understand things and forces me to consider a perspective I would have otherwise missed. Movies are fantastic for me when they increase my capacity for empathy.

For me, “Moonlight” was very good and a super important story to tell, but I found myself wondering how it hadn’t been told before now. I personally feel like this is a narrative which I’ve seen before and, although I would never claim to be an expert, known to exist for as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s because I grew up with not a lot of money, or because I affiliated myself with people who I was actually punished for spending time with by my classmates. Maybe it’s because I’ve always cultivated empathy within and truly felt that I understand poverty to be something bigger than people, something of which people are part but for which they are not at fault. Because of this, I found myself wondering about the primary audience for “Moonlight”; with whom did the creators most want the story to resonate? I have to conclude that it might be white people who are unaware that this narrative exists. I don’t mean to imply that this movie is in any way not for black people, not important to black people: I imagine it must be. But my assumption comes from my belief that a lot of today’s persisting societal issues stem from the inability for white people to contextualize their experiences, to feel empathy, to understand where their privilege fits in the larger picture of oppression. As someone who’s spent a lot of time understanding and wrestling with privilege, it is hard for me to remember that there are many white people who still need to see stories like “Moonlight” because they either don’t know they exist or they do know and are in denial.

The story centers on a small black boy (and later young black man) who is scrawny, meek and mild, who doesn’t use violence and doesn’t speak much and, for these things, gets picked on often. This boy has troubles at home that include living in a dangerous neighborhood filled with guns and drugs. He finds out at a very young age that his mother smokes crack. Aside from the obvious emotional trauma involved, the physical conditions of Chairon’s life are upsetting. His and his mother’s apartment isn’t close to pretty because pretty isn’t something that either of them have time to worry about; his mother is too busy using and Chairon is too busy surviving.

What I find most interesting about Chairon’s silence and inward nature is how much is behind it. Due to the expectation that Chairon remain “hard”, he was forced to repress an incredible amount of experiences, perceptions, opinions, and ideas: about manliness, survival, his surroundings. One gets the feeling that Chairon seems to know that all of it is viscerally wrong but seems unable to see a path by which to escape. The only path he was exposed to in childhood was riddled with danger and against his nature, not to mention heartbreaking. Early in the movie Chairon spends time with a mentor that he met by chance, a man who reached out and was kind to him when he so clearly felt that the world was against him and those who are like him. He soon learned that this man sold drugs and sold them to his mother. At Chairon’s most vulnerable point, while he was sorting through his sexuality and the reasons for his being bullied at school, he connected with a man who in one breath told him being gay is OK and in the next breath admitted to selling to Chairon’s mother.

We can’t be what we can’t see.

Chairon saw a good man hustling on the streets and so that is what he became. That was his model for existence as a black man growing up in the conditions in which he was growing up.

The movie ends on an uplifting note with Chairon reuniting with a childhood love. The two discuss their feelings, ways out of where they had been, and other things that one normally does not see depicted in movies about the relationships between black men.

I’m left to wrestle with questions that all center on America’s misperceptions of marginalized groups and individualistic nature which blocks compassion. How can you ignore pockets of the country who feel stuck, unsupported in environments that cannot serve them? Chairon saw no other choice but to trap and I wonder why Kevin found a way out that Chairon didn’t. I wonder what Kevin was able to become based on possible mentors or mental models that he encountered in the past. I wonder why black men are taught to be violent, hard, not to feel. I wonder why their socially sanctioned options are to hustle, to become famous sports players or rappers, to become cooks or garbagemen. Those are mostly all fine occupations, but why aren’t there structures in place so that black men can become whatever they choose? Why do we leave marginalized communities with few options and then blame them for it?

People need to see this movie so that they know the conditions of our poor, under-resourced neighborhoods, although it astounds me that we need a movie like this in order to highlight these conditions. Poor Chairon comes to represent children like him, those who have no positive mentors, who fall into the depths of their environments and succumb to what I assume is a horrible depression manifesting in anxiety-inducing situations, like when a drug-addicted mother begs you for money for her habit. It’s a psychologically damaging environment which we must have compassion for in order to change it.

That’s what silos do- they drain us of our compassion. Rhetoric like that of the Trump administration serves to “divide” us, a term in wide use lately. To take that issue further, those divisions also help us to feel less for others. In our divided ideological environments we become unable to empathize with situations which we have never lived. These situations become easier to judge when we blame them on the individuals involved, or on the liberals, or the media, or women or immigrants. It’s easier to judge than it is to understand, because understanding and true empathy take work. The phrase I mentioned earlier, “you can’t be what you can’t see”, applies here in a slightly altered format: You can’t understand what you refuse to see.

A movie like Moonlight is so important because it forces the viewer to understand a situation like the one Chairon is in. It forces one to understand the conditions under which marginalized communities are expected to thrive, and how incredibly unfair it is for us to blame them if and when they fail to do so. It forces one to understand how remarkable it is that marginalized communities continue to become great, creating things and innovating. It isn’t always about survival, and I don’t mean to paint communities like the one described with a broad brush. Survival under difficult conditions is admirable, and creation, innovation, becoming under those conditions is doubly so. It’s magic. Imagine the magic that would result from all communities being fully supported to reach their full potential.