When a young black man appears on screen in an American movie, there is a
limited range of things his character can generally be expected to do.
He can deal drugs or get addicted to drugs. He can get in fights, run
from cops, get arrested, go to jail. If he’s lucky, he might get to be a
cop (though often his luck runs out, and his white partner is spurred
to acts of heroism by his buddy’s untimely death) or get out of
jail (only to face the temptation of life back on the streets). Maybe
he gets to fall in love with a good woman, but more often, he keeps that
good woman down.
The main character in director Barry Jenkins’ tender, lyrical, and stunning Moonlight—who’s
known by a different name and played by a different actor in each of
the film’s three distinct sections—does engage in a few of the
activities described above. But he also does things we almost never get
to see a black male do on screen.
He wrestles with the societal
expectation that he project strength, invulnerability, and
hypermasculine cool, even when he feels anything but strong or cool on
the inside. In the transcendent nighttime scene that gives the film its
title, he kisses another young black man on a beach. Most surprisingly
of all, he cries. Not just once, in a single pent-up release of
long-suppressed manly emotions, but several times, alone and in the
company of others: sometimes from loneliness and rage, sometimes from
relief and gratitude.
Moonlight is one of those movies that
showers its audience with blessings: raw yet accomplished performances
from a uniformly fine cast, casually lyrical camerawork, and a frankly
romantic soundtrack that runs the gamut from ’70s Jamaican pop to a
Mexican folk song crooned by the Brazilian Caetano Veloso. But the
film’s greatest gift may be that flood of cleansing tears—which, by the
time this spare but affecting film is over, you may also be shedding in