Emily Dickinson wrote that she always knew when she had stumbled across a really special poem, for it made her feel as though the top of her head had been taken off.
Right now, I feel as if the top of my head has been taken off. I also feel as if I am full of something, something which has collected in my chest, and is nudging insistently for release. What I am full of I’m not quite sure, for it keeps shifting. Mostly it is awe. I feel deeply moved and both melancholy and grateful. I want to apply a moderate, but precise point of release for this energy, and so I am going to write. It will be snippets, gushing and perhaps not terribly cogent ones, but I feel so profoundly touched, that it seems only right I should write about this film while I remain suspended in its orbit. While I am still so dazzled.
I just saw a preview screening of Moonlight, the critically acclaimed film directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
You can read many a wonderful and more nuanced review of the film, unanimously celebrating its astonishing direction, acting, cinematography and score. I’ve read a great many of them myself, and they only added to my extraordinary desire to see the film. They were so right. Moonlight is a masterpiece.
Indeed, my hopes for this film were exceptionally high. The trailer, a work of art in itself, is just under two minutes of perfectly executed emotion and tension. The score, which I have been lost in for many a day now, is also a triumph. So I was, rather cynically, expecting to be somewhat disappointed, for how could the film live up to the dizzying heights I had demanded of it?
Somehow, it was so very much more than I’d been hoping for.
Oh yes, *spoilers galore*.
Chiron. I saw the name and thought of the mythological centaur, half brother to Zeus, and because of his divine heritage, noticeably gentler, kinder and quieter than his mortal and rambunctious peers. Moonlight’s Chiron is aptly pronounced Shy-rone, although over the course of the film we also see him evolve under the nicknames ‘Little’ and ‘Black’. The question forever encircling Chiron, “Who is you?”, mocking, relentless and seemingly devastating if fully faced up to, transcends the abstract existential crises probably familiar to many. As a young boy immediately confronted by the grim ramifications of being black, poor and gay, Chiron soon realises that all the things he will gradually learn about himself do not matter as much as those which others instantly infer about him. He moves through a world of drugs, toxic masculinity and neglect; a world which neither cares for him nor affords specificity of identity or even adequate air in which to breathe freely. Any self-awareness must be weaponised for survival. Chiron diligently keeps his head down and his mouth shut, yet there is still something in his eyes, something in his walk, which sees him mercilessly set upon with vicious tongues and fists.
Told in three acts, the film is a profoundly still one. There isn’t a abundance of dialogue. This doesn’t mean that it is slow or tame. The emotions and relationships explored are intense, complicated, devastating, and the film taps all manner of exposed nerves. We see Chiron provide a touchstone for the conscience and love, or distinct lack thereof, of those around him, from his drug addicted mother Paula and the surrogate parents embodied by drug-dealer Juan and girlfriend Theresa to his friend and first love Kevin. The landscape, revealing indigo waves and luminous night skies, affirm that despite the unflinching focus on the agony of an individual, he still moves within a world of supreme beauty, navigating a mesmerising nightmare. Chiron rarely speaks. This is something frequently acknowledged by other characters. Yet, such intense emotion- frustration, desperation and impossible yearning- is portrayed with often unfathomable skill. His gazes and his movements communicate all which he does not give voice to, a complex internal struggle invisible to the world around him, sentencing him to a life unmoored in cutting loneliness. The actors playing Chiron at these three stages of his life were truly masterful: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
The shots. The soap suds slipping down a young-Chiron’s face as he hunches in the bath. The shuddering clench of teenage-Chiron’s fist as he experiences his one pivotal moment of sexual vulnerability. The almost imperceptible movements of adult-Chiron’s face as he faces his first love again after a decade: a crossing shadow reveals hesitant fear, a small, flickering twitch betrays a wistful ache. So many dimensions are offered and hard, regulated masculinity so easily and suddenly melts into innocent tenderness. The score is both delicate and electrifying. It is taut, demonstrating both high passion and protracted agony. It offers yet more meaning to Chiron’s stoic silence.
I really don’t have the words. Does anyone? There is so much more to say, to celebrate, to discuss, to unpack, to marvel at. This film is so important because it insists upon awareness, upon visibility, upon meaningful discourse. It is brave, unexpected and, I know this must seem premature, unforgettable. I have never seen such a story rendered with (or, more importantly, such a protagonist afforded) the beauty, sensitivity and complexity which saturates the entire film. There has never been a film like it- it is unprecedented and therefore deeply necessary. Jenkins shuns the tired clichés and two dimensional characterisation. He does not attempt to merely blindside us with bleak despair. The film, after breathing “Who is you, Chiron?” one last time, leaves us with two breathtaking images. Chiron, for so long denied, by others and himself, human touch and affection, gently rests his head on Kevin’s shoulder. His eyes flutter shut, and with this slight movement we are reminded of all he has experienced to simply partake and relax in this moment. We then see him, a young boy once more, standing on the Miami beach in the moonlight, the black skin of his back, delicate shoulder blades like small wings, ringed in deep blue. They are tranquil images of hope, acceptance and a tentative peace.
Yes, I really don’t have the words. The most magnificent creations always defy them. All there is to do is to witness Moonlight. Feel it. Ponder it. Share it. Remember it. Jenkins and McCraney, along with a truly sublime cast, have gifted us something so intimate and so affecting that I doubt there will be another film like it. I hope there will be though. I hope the success of Moonlight heralds a great many more films which offer such devoted and delicate portraits of those so frequently marginalised and silenced, to devastating effect. There are so many important stories to be told, and this is a tremendous start. It is a narrative which surely consoles, challenges and enlightens, fighting against symptoms of both alienated and ignorant consciousness to emerge as a guarantor of essential meaning.
N.b. Yes, I cried. A lot. I expected that. But, surprisingly, I laughed quite often too! However, more importantly, Moonlight is released in the UK on February 17th.