Home > Features > Moonlight: A Melancholy Meditation On Gay Life

Moonlight: A Melancholy Meditation On Gay Life

The Barry Jenkins drama reminds us that navigating alternative sexuality can be a depleting and lonely existence

Vikram JohriVikram Johri

February 18, 2017 | 01:02 PM

Moonlight, Oscar, Oscars, Oscar Awards, Academy Awards, Gay, Same Sex, Movies, Film Companion, FilmCmpanion, Love, Life,

Moonlight, the Barry Jenkins-directed drama that is nominated for eight Oscars, tracks the life of Chiron, who is black, through three stages: childhood, adolescence and youth. Chiron’s blackness is an essential part of his story: from growing up in the Miami projects with a drug-addicted mother to finally finding work “trapping” on Atlanta streets.

Yet, the film is not chiefly interested in those details, which it takes as a given before proceeding to focus on the individual at their centre. We first meet Chiron as a kid (Alex R Hibbert) running away from bullies into an abandoned house where he is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan is a drug dealer who brings Chiron home and, together with his girlfriend, begins to look after him as a son. Juan also happens to sell crack cocaine to Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a contradiction that Moonlight merely nods at as a fact of life.

We next meet Chiron as an adolescent (Ashton Sanders), still the quietest boy in class and hounded by bullies who are now more vicious. We also meet Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), whom we know from the first episode as Chiron’s childhood friend—and we witness the first halting kiss between them. Are they gay? We will have the answer to that question only in the third episode, and even then, not conclusively. Moonlight mirrors life in scattering uncertainty when it is least expected, bestowing on its characters multiple, malleable identities. 

The movie is many things rolled into one: a meditative gay drama, an analysis of masculinity, and a reflection on black identity. But its most precious moments emerge in its handling of Chiron’s homosexuality, in a way that is both apolitical and the more educational.

In the final episode, Chiron is a young man (Trevante Rhodes), burly unlike his younger self, head covered in a du-rag, a wispy beard wrapping his jaw. A drug dealer in Atlanta, he drives fancy cars and stays in a luxurious condo, but he is also utterly alone. When Kevin, now a chef in Miami, calls him, the two reconnect after a gap of many years, and their meeting becomes a delicate juxtaposition of the past and the future, the possibilities of one feeding into the other.

The movie is many things rolled into one: a meditative gay drama, an analysis of masculinity, and a reflection on black identity. But its most precious moments emerge in its handling of Chiron’s homosexuality, in a way that is both apolitical and the more educational. 

WATCH - MOONLIGHT MOVIE REVIEW

Unlike movies like The Kids Are All Right or shows like Modern Family, which take gayness as an accepted norm of American life, here the homosexuality is couched in silence. But the silence at the heart of the movie is not a product of shame. When the little Chiron asks Juan what is a faggot (he hears that a lot from his bullies), Juan tells him what it is, and when Chiron further asks if he is one, Juan replies: “Gay maybe but don’t let anyone call you a faggot.”

Moonlight reminds us of the stark, mind-shifting difference that is alternative sexuality and how navigating that difference and coming to terms with it can be as depleting an experience as coming out and being accepted are uplifting. Growing up black and gay may not be easy, but Chiron has a system, however flawed, to deal with his blackness. His gayness, on the contrary, is entirely his to traverse. 

Moonlight thus belongs to the tradition of that other gay drama, one that we associate with a time before marriage equality and the maturing of the fight for gay rights

Chiron’s solitariness is an outcome of a reserve perfected over many years as a way to blend in. He shares his first—and only—kiss with his friend Kevin when they are both teenagers. The two go on to lead separate lives but the memory of that kiss and the intense dreams it occasions are solely Chiron’s bequest. When the two meet as adults, Kevin is revealed as having a kid with a woman, and when Chiron tells him that he is the only man Chiron has ever touched, the look of surprise on Kevin’s face is, above all else, heartbreaking.

Moonlight thus belongs to the tradition of that other gay drama, one that we associate with a time before marriage equality and the maturing of the fight for gay rights. It is closer to The Hours than it is to Brokeback Mountain, two films that showcased the intense sadness of the homosexual, but approached it from opposite ends.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are cowboys who fall in love on a grazing range in Wyoming. While Twist is killed in a homophobic attack, it is del Mar who is the tragic hero, his life spent in mourning the loss of what could have been.

In spite of the bodily harm inflicted on one of its protagonists, Brokeback Mountain is a less grim story than the 2002 film, The Hours, whose protagonist Richard lives with AIDS in modern-day New York. A gay man watched over by his lifelong friend Clarissa, Richard is a poet whose first novel has just been published to widespread acclaim. Yet, he cannot ultimately abide the steady advance of his death, and decides to take matters into his own hands one morning by jumping out of his apartment’s window.

Richard’s story—and the method of his suicide--have close parallels with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the inspiration for the Michael Cunningham novel on which the 2002 film is based. While The Hours attempts to dignify Richard’s death by encasing it in beautiful dialogue and the almost-tangible love that Clarissa showers on him, the death’s association with the trauma of being gay is hard to shake off. 

WATCH: NOT A MOVIE REVIEW 'HIDDEN FIGURES'

Unlike Brokeback, in which the gay men’s sorrow arises from the enforced social mores, the sadness of The Hours and Moonlight has a more interior and pernicious origin. Richard, who dies, and Chiron, who lives, are products of more egalitarian environments, yet their gayness is the inescapable cause of their misery.

Beneath the dignifying impulse of these films can be espied the extraordinary unhappiness that is the inheritance of all gay men, regardless of how many laws change and how open the world becomes.