Early in Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed film, Chiron, a terrified little boy played by Alex Hibbert, is chased into an abandoned house in Miami’s Liberty Square neighborhood by a gang of bullies. After Juan, a well-built man in his forties, coaxes him out of the vacant house and takes him out to eat, Chiron still won’t give his name or the location of his parents. He won’t even speak. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, who gives Chiron another meal, which he greedily scarfs down in a way that only children who aren’t fed properly by their parents can, is more successful, finally getting the dark, silent as the grave little boy to open up and admit that he live nearby in Liberty City. Soon, we understand why Chiron is in no rush to get back home to Paula, his mother, an emotionally abusive crack addict who curtly, and surprisingly, dismisses Juan without so much as a “thank you for taking care of my son and bringing him back home.” As Chiron shuttles back and forth between his mother, Juan and Teresa, we begin to think that he’s had an incredible piece of good luck, that he’s found two good, middle-class parents willing to give him the love and care that he couldn’t get at home> We quickly realize that it’s much more complex. Paula is no villain. She’s a troubled single mother who’s cracked under the stress of bringing up a child with no job, husband, or network of support. Juan, in turn, even though he gives Chiron money and gently explains how the word “faggot” it “just a bad word people use to make gay people feel bad,” is no saint. Quite the contrary, for all his good qualities, Juan is a drug dealer, the leader of the gang of “corner boys” who supply Paula with her crack. Paula has good reason to hate Juan. After Chiron confronts him about what he does for a living – “do you sell drugs?” – Juan hangs his head in shame, unable to face up to how he makes a good living by extracting money from impoverished crack addicts. Their relationship comes to an end.
As Daniel Levine points out in his earlier review of Moonlight, none of this is very realistic, but I disagree with his conclusion. Moonlight is a slow, intimate film, but not a realistic one. It is not a documentary about life in Liberty City. Divided into three parts, Chiron at about age ten, Chiron at about age seventeen, and Chiron at about age thirty, Moonlight is a poetic meditation on how men, even and especially gay men, become alienated from themselves in a culture dominated by homophobia and toxic masculinity. Chiron’s initial inability to speak expresses more in a few minutes than what a realistic screenplay could express in two hours. Words are inadequate to help him find what’s he’s already lost, but his haunted expression, his cavernous dark eyes, serve as a window into his soul, into the identity he’s never really had. Moonlight has been billed as a “gay” film, but Chiron’s homosexuality is only part of the reason, along with his mother’s addiction, the deeply segregated city of Miami – there’s no explicit racism in Moonlight because there are no white people in Moonlight but Liberty Square has the unmistakable quality of a Bantustan – and the violence of his peers, that by the end of the movie leaves him encased in a thick layer of muscle and emotional sterility. The “happy ending,” as Levine points out, certainly does feel tacked on and inconsequential. It’s driven by plot, and not character. Why would Chiron want to reunite with his first and only homosexual lover, a man who betrayed him because he couldn’t resist the conformist pressures of their high school? Nevertheless the striking resemblance between the adult Chiron and Juan — Chiron, like Juan, becomes a crack dealer and the leader of a gang of “corner boys” – demonstrates that, contrary to Levine’s argument, Juan was not simply a drug dealer with a heart of gold. Rather, similar to the way ten-year-old Chiron’s, blank, mute expression looked back to the innocence that was lost even before he was born, Juan’s attempt to nurture the little boy looked back to his own childhood, to that time before economic necessity and the prison industrial complex had transformed him into a predator.
In the end, I think, Eric, also gay, the young man played by André Holland who betrays Juan back in high school and who tries to reconnect with him as an adult, might be the film’s most realistic and important character. Chiron, like Juan, is more prototype than individual, a symbol of the way segregated neighborhoods like Liberty City destroys black men. That the physically imposing Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as an adult, is the very last person most of us would imagine as “gay” forces us to confront our own preconceptions about homosexuality, as does the film’s slow, intimate pace. The love scenes between Eric and Chiron actually made me physically uncomfortable, or, to be more accurate, aware of my own homophobia. Nevertheless, as Levine points out, Chiron’s job as the leader of a gang of corner boys, while marginally more credible than Ethan Hawke’s eventual transformation into an actuary in Boyhood, is more of a plot device than an expression of his character. Eric, on the other hand, after spending a few years in prison for “stupid stuff,” is struggling to get out of the vicious circle that leads from Juan to Paula to Chiron. Instead of dealing crack, he’s found a job as a cook, takes the base back and forth from work, and lives as modestly as possible. “I make shoe shine money,” he says to Chiron, “but this is a life. I Have a life.” That he’s also gay, and up until then, in deniable about it, gives his character a complexity Chiron’s doesn’t have. Will he leave his wife and child to become himself? Or will he repress his homosexuality, and try to fit into straight, working-class society as best he can. There’s no way of knowing, but it’s a story I’d like to see told.
Inevitably, in the coming weeks, there will be a debate about whether Moonlight or La La Land is the better movie. Both are favorites for the Best Picture Oscar. Don’t bother. They’re such different movies it’s impossible to compare them. Nevertheless they do have one thing in common. Neither has a conventional happy ending. Mia and Sebastian separate in order to pursue incompatible careers. Chiron and Eric have a brief moment of intimacy, but it’s hard to see themselves building a lasting relationship. Hollywood, it seems, has finally caught up with the rest of the country. In real life there are no romantic comedies, only romantic tragedies.