Critical accolades notwithstanding, “Moonlight” is almost certainly a film few conservatives have seen, or are likely to see. The one-sentence synopsis of the film—a young black gay man’s coming-of-age story—would almost certainly lead one to expect a polemic against social injustice, a cinematic broadside against the impending horrors of the Age of Trump.
“Moonlight,” however, is not such a movie. Instead, it tells a deeply felt story that largely transcends politics, raising memorable questions about life and relationships that cut across all demographics.
‘Moonlight’ Is a Masterfully Crafted Film
Set in an ambiguous timeline that could be anywhere from the 1980s to the mid-2010s, “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron (played successively by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), a contemplative young man who struggles to fit into his surrounding community. The narrative unfolds in three segments—“Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” each title referring to the way in which Chiron is perceived by others—as first a child, then as an individual, and last as a stereotype.
In the skillful hands of director Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight” is masterfully crafted, from its creatively atypical camera work (a 720-degree rotating shot at the very start of the film is particularly striking) to its vividly colorful lighting. Evocative soundtrack cues capture Chiron’s drift from the naïveté of childhood to an adult loss-of-innocence: slow-motion montage sequences set to classical music give way to quick-cut scenes backed by thudding gangsta rap.
But perhaps the most enduring strength of “Moonlight” is its thematic timelessness. This is not a race-relations story in the vein of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (in fact, there are no white characters at all), a gay love story à la Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” or an explicitly political critique like Ava DuVernay’s “13th.” And in many ways, this refusal to focus on anything other than its central character is what makes “Moonlight” a potent viewing experience. Chiron is not a trope through which directors or producers are broadcasting a loud message: he’s a fully realized character, with complex motivations and a turbulent past that defies easy labeling.
How ‘Moonlight’ Addresses the Criminal Justice System
The most socially salient “Moonlight” becomes is in its subtle critique of the “school-to-prison pipeline”: when he eventually snaps and strikes back against his tormenters, Chiron is immediately dragged away in handcuffs and sent to juvenile detention, where he encounters the man who eventually convinces him to sell drugs. The argument that school discipline has become too bound up with the criminal justice system is an important one, but isn’t detailed onscreen at length.
Throughout its runtime, “Moonlight” examines questions of masculinity and strength (in some ways, it’s a fascinating foil to Tom Ford’s recent film “Nocturnal Animals,” which probed similar themes in a neo-Western context), and Chiron’s sexual orientation is used obliquely to further this larger theme.
The film’s first segment opens with a young Chiron fleeing bullies and being rescued by softhearted Juan (a memorable Mahershala Ali). Juan and Chiron quickly strike up a friendship, with Juan filling in for Chiron’s missing father (in one memorable scene which evokes baptismal imagery, Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim). But as it turns out, Juan is dealing drugs to Chiron’s mother, making his relationship with Chiron a tragic form of atonement for ongoing wrongs.
How the Film Addresses Alienation and Belonging
In the movie’s second segment, when a teenage Chiron refuses to engage in the casual violence and relational degradation that suffuse his school, he is brutally beaten by a gang of bullies. Even after being advised to “stay down!” after being pummeled again and again, Chiron continues to rise and face his attackers without ever striking back.
When the film skips forward to its third segment, picking up roughly 10 years later, Chiron has become a drug dealer himself, and has adopted the fashion and trappings of a “gang culture” to which he does not truly belong. In perhaps the film’s most wrenching scene, Chiron’s mother beseeches him to abandon his new lifestyle, urging him to listen to her. “Who am I going to listen to? You?” Chiron shoots back grimly.
Over and over again, Chiron’s nonconformity to the “ideal” of street toughness—an ideal demanded of him from a painfully early age—grinds him down, forcing him into a state of alienation from anyone who might care for him. In the absence of a father figure to convey a healthy view of masculinity—that being a man means also knowing when not to fight—Chiron finds himself caught up in the cycle that ensnared his own parents.
‘Moonlight’ Conveys A Powerful Story of Community
But “Moonlight” is not a story of ceaseless despair. It contains warm scenes of Chiron and others eating and drinking together, a powerful symbolism of relationality and community that communicates a clear message: we can only be fully ourselves when we love, and are loved by, others. The “fully autonomous self” is a myth—and by the end of the film, when confronted by a former friend who has begun to build a meaningful and stable life for himself and his child, Chiron comes to realize that truth. That message is decidedly antithetical to a contemporary culture that celebrates self-liberation above all other values.
Despite its universalizing themes, “Moonlight” is not a film for all tastes. Its irregular pacing, sparse dialogue, and abrupt cuts will likely frustrate audiences in search of a straightforward bildungsroman, and its lack of overt political content will disappoint viewers looking for sharper commentary (either from the right or from the left).
But on its own terms, as both a penetrating character study and a decisive rebuke of social fragmentation, “Moonlight” succeeds powerfully. And conservative storytellers interested in winsomely communicating longstanding values would do well to heed its lessons: sometimes the most powerful and resonant messages are quite subtle indeed.