Jenkins: Moonlight (2016)
One of the most elusive and ethereal films about queerness that I have seen in some time, Moonlight is based upon Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a piece that he wrote when attending drama school in Miami, where the film is also set. In interviews he has given about his piece, however, McCraney has made it clear that it was never intended as a play, nor even written as a regular script, but instead formulated more as a series of visual and verbal conceits that exist somewhere between theatre and cinema. It’s no surprise, then, that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation never really feels like an adapted play, nor that it is largely devoid of any theatrical residues. If anything, Moonlight plays more as a collection of related short stories, each of which focuses on a different period in the life of its main character – variously referred to as “Little,” (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) – as he grows up in Miami and tries to come to terms with what it means to be an African-American queer man in the 80s, 90s and 00s. As we follow Chiron from childhood to high school to adulthood, Jenkins draws on his own Miami background – apparently he grew up in the same project as McCraney, although they didn’t know each other – to build an achingly erotic character study and a stark riposte to the way in which African-American masculinity is framed by a mainstream media besotted by gangsta culture.
In part, that’s a result of Jenkins’ sweeping, circumambient filming style, which creates an enormously tactile, sensuous and immersive approach that is only enhanced by the pervasive Miami backdrop, which renders everything permeable and porous, creating an oceanic, liquid sense of space that only grows more amorphous as the film proceeds. That, in turn, creates a continual awareness of how bodies position themselves in space, as well as how bodies define their outermost limits in space, with Jenkins less interested in shooting his characters so much as their proprioceptive boundaries, the zones at which their personal space starts to rub up against those of everyone around them. It’s an intensely haptic style that reminded me both of The Fits and the various music video tendencies that it channelled, embodying Jenkins’ camera in turn until every moment it approaches another body shimmers with the tremulous eroticism of first and fleeting contact.
That context works perfectly to draw out the invisibility of the African-American queer body, especially in the earliest parts of the narrative, in which it almost feels as if Chiron doesn’t have a body, or has a body so different from everybody else’s that it doesn’t even register as such. To some extent, that’s clear in the way in which he holds and carries his body itself, at least to some of the people in his community, who start to label him a “faggot” from a very young age. But it’s also there in his inability (or refusal) to fully delimit the peripheries of his personal space – where his body stops and those of other people, especially men, begins – with the result that his body always retreats to the peripheries of every space within which it is shot, even or especially when Jenkins frames it front and centre. That’s not say, of course, that he’s not presented with continuous images and examples of what it means to have a normative African-American body, but that he can’t quite bring himself to identify with any of them – or, rather, that he craves something more than identification that makes it difficult for him to dissociate from and de-eroticise the space between him and every man that he encounters over the course of the narrative.
In a strange way, then, Moonlight often feels like a narrative of passing for black, insofar as blackness and queerness are not permitted to intersect, at least in the opening stages of the film. Indeed, Chiron gains the nickname “Black” from his friend Kevin – the only man he allows to touch him – who uses it as a way of negotiating their transition from friendship to sexual contact in the second part of the film. While African-American literature, film and rap is often about black people coming to language – what Henry Louis Gates Jr. called signifyin’ – it has often turned out to be a primarily heterosexual language, and sometimes a homophobic language, with the result that Shiron seems shrouded in an even greater silence and invisibility than those of his peers and classmates. After all, language is not really an attainment if it excludes you in the first place, which perhaps explains the pointed exclusion of hip hop from the score – all the more noticeable for the burgeoning hip hop scene in Miami at this time – which is mainly ambient and classical with distant echoes of soul as well. Barely speaking a word in the first section of the film and never really speaking in any emphatic manner, Shiron is unable to graduate into the kinds of gangsta lexicon prevalent at his high school just because they assume a bodily orientation that he doesn’t himself share.
In other words, being queer here doesn’t manifest itself first and foremost as direct sexual attraction but in terms of Shiron’s dislocation form his own body and displacement from the kinds of language that African-American men have conventionally seized upon to delimit the contours of their bodies. In that sense, Moonlight reflects a shift in recent representations of sexual liberation in which object choice (who you like, what you like to do with them) is replaced by a more emergent and open-ended sense of transitioning. In these accounts, it is less the articulation of desires than a continual reorientation of one’s own body that tends to be foregrounded, as well as the recognition that there are vastly different types of bodies as well. In that sense, Moonlight often plays as Shiron discovering he has a particular kind of body as much as a particular set of desires. Some critics have seen that as a conservative move, suggesting that the absence of direct sexual contact betokens a film about African-American queerness that is designed to find an audience amongst straight white folk. Yet I felt that Moonlight also captures something remote and strange about queer identity as well, something stubborn that won’t be assimilated to language, something that was perhaps also incomplete in McCraney’s original written treatment but required the more emergent and evocative visual language of cinema to allows its profundities to really resonate.
Similarly, to say that Moonlight lacks graphic depictions of sex is also to miss its profound eroticism, the way Shiron never manages to cordon off and de-eroticise the space between him and other men. As Jenkins’ camera gradually identifies itself with the outer contours of Shiron’s proprioceptive space, so every body that the camera lights upon feels cruised and scrutinised in turn, leading to a series of wonderful depictions of cruising – real cruising – that are devoid of orgasmic ecstasy or macho achievement and instead invested in transitory, nocturnal, public spaces as the one zone where Shiron’s identity and body doesn’t have to settle into anything stable, or articulate itself in any kind of recognisable language. At these moments, it’s a longing for total bodily proximity, rather than any particular sex act, that comes through, domestic and erotic at the same time, and beautifully consummated in a series of sequences in and around Miami public transit that reminded me of the inchoate apprehensions of self that pervade James Baldwin’s Another Country and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied.
In the process, it’s inevitable that Moonlight also functions as an indictment of the gangsta culture that has become such a synecdoche for African-American culture in the mainstream media, offering a vision of all the African-American people – a whole world – that gangsta leaves behind. Yet this isn’t a blunt moralist dismissal either, since it gradually becomes clear that the very homophobia of gangsta culture is a response to a homoerotic joy that is freer, in some ways, to flourish in African-American communities than in white communities. After all, there is no more homophobic institution and mechanism than white middle-class family life, which is not to say that many African-Americans aren’t middle-class as well, but that it often feels as if white people, on the whole, are more enslaved and fixated by mythologies of suburban stability and nuclear longevity. Certainly, the first part of Moonlight goes to some lengths to depict the more flexible and reparative family arrangements that persist amongst this African-American community, thanks in part of a beautiful performance from Janelle Monae as one of Chiron’s mentors and the closest he comes to a real mother.
One of the most powerful suggestions of Moonlight, then, is that gangsta culture suppresses queerness in much the same way as middle-class white culture, which is perhaps why gangsta has become such a visceral vocabulary for disenfranchised middle-class white men as well. At the same time, of course, gangsta rap has always been about the traumatic fact that it is harder for African-Americans to become middle-class than it is for them to become millionaires, often making me wonder whether all the most alienating aspects of gangsta rap – the misogyny, the homophobia, the violence – are really just a condensed appropriation of the key tenets of what middle-class life really stands for. In any case, it often feels as if there is a class critique buried within Moonlight as well, since, without at all trivialising the class aspirations of African-Americans, Jenkins seems to be suggesting that there is a queer possibility that can be forestalled by middle-class mobility and gangsta mobility (and that middle-class people and gangstas therefore have to work particularly hard to keep in mind).
There’s a strange and beautiful optimistim about the third act, then, in which Chiron – now a drug dealer who styles himself as “Black” – accepts Kevin’s invitation to reunite in Miami after ten years. Of course, it’s a shock to see how much Chiron has chaged from his teenage self – he’s now built with an eight-pack, light years away from his weedy high school days – as well as somewhat disheartening to see that he seems to have retreated even deeper into his silence. Yet it also turns out to be surprisingly easy for him to let go and give himself to Kevin as the night proceeds, as if adopting a gangsta lifestyle has finally allowed him to conceive more directly of what it is that lifestyle is designed to suppress, as well as the sheer effort and exhaustion of that suppression. What ensues is one of the most beautiful conversations between two queer men I have ever seen in a film – possibly the most beautiful – as Chiron and Kevin trace out the tremulous space between them – or, rather, refuse to cordon it off – and realise that refusal is all it takes for their longing for domestic and erotic proximity to be fulfilled in one final, lingering, breathtaking shot. Finally living without needing to be anxious about where their bodies begin or end with respect to each other, it’s a moment that suddenly makes it feel as if Jenkins’ roving camera has also been an allegory for our new and amorphous digital bodies, and our erotic selves as they are displaced and dispersed throughout social media. Yet social media – so conspicuously absent from the film – is no more the answer than gangsta culture, or the nuclear family, as Jenkins and McCraney enjoin everyone in their audience to embrace the messiness of eroticism, the strange zones between bodies in space, and the queer liberations that can bring.
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