I don’t know if I will ever hear the word ‘moonlight’ again without thinking of the wondrous movie that came out to great acclaim in 2016. Moonlight is a masterpiece of understated filmic construction, a nuanced dramatic unfolding of one unique character enhanced by undertows of ambiguity in a context of profound moodiness and irresolution. The story of the protagonist Chiron, crafted into a three-part narrative, begins when he is a child growing up with a single mother in a housing project in Liberty City, a neighborhood of Miami.
The movie was based on an unproduced screenplay by Tarell McCraney, titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and subsequently reworked by Barry Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay for the movie and eventually directed it. An interesting sidebar to the history of the character of Chiron is that Jenkins and McCraney both grew up in the same housing project in Liberty City and attended the same schools, though they never knew each other in their youth. For the story of the lonely, neglected, and sexually confused Chiron, McCraney drew upon his own life as a gay identified man. Poverty, dysfunctional family life, drug addiction, bullying, questions about sexual identity, and feelings of abandonment—talk about a plethora of issues in which to dip one’s creative hands. And yet Jenkins’s movie is one of the most riveting, mysterious, and profoundly moving films to enter the American canon since the new millennium. Jenkins’s gifts as a filmmaker allowed him to deftly sidestep a critical mass of inherently depressing material and create a heartbreakingly beautiful movie. Its carefully framed scenes and probing camerawork linger on the face of Chiron as he passes through three selective phases of development—childhood, adolescence, young adulthood. What initially appears as yet more hopeless social and psychological dilemmas for an audience to try to relate to proves at times to be as delicate as a wounded bird held in the palm of your hands—or breathtakingly translucent in its alternating psychology of love, loss, and intermittent connection. This is particularly true in the first part of the movie when Chiron is brought to the ocean for the first time and taught to swim by Juan, something of a father figure, and played by the immensely talented Mahershala Ali.
Besides the symbolism of a father and son dyad, this sequence is exquisitely framed and photographed with the camera lens half in and half out of the water, bringing the viewer close to the ritual immersion, the fear of letting go, and then the eventual movement of arms and legs in the act of swimming.
The swimming scene is a kind of baptism for the young Chiron, at this stage played by Alex Hibbert, a first-time actor who digs into his role with uncanny understanding. Besides the symbolism of a father and son dyad, this sequence is exquisitely framed and photographed with the camera lens half in and half out of the water, bringing the viewer close to the ritual immersion, the fear of letting go, and then the eventual movement of arms and legs in the act of swimming. Indeed, Chiron, at first held buoyantly in the water by Juan, who teaches him to float, is encouraged to trust that he will not sink. This particularly luminous scene, with its momentary transcendence of psychosocial limitations, embodies an act of spiritual transference and is accompanied by a truly surprising score that has hints of Bach and Mozart, but was composed by Nicholas Britell specifically for Moonlight. It’s a piece Britell called “In the Middle of the World” and it’s like an emotional epiphany echoed by the sounds of the intricate phrasing of string instruments. The whole score of Moonlight is fabulous and varied as we follow Chiron in his transitions.
In the third part of the movie, it seems that Chiron as an adult has come full circle; he is a drug dealer in Atlanta, fashioning his persona to a certain extent on Juan, who was also a drug dealer and died when Chiron was a teenager. Instead of “full circle,” it could be better likened to an elliptical orbit that captures Chiron when he is out in the world on his own. Yet, drug dealing is a job to which Chiron is ill suited in his delicate and repressed heart of hearts. The muscle-bound grown man, whose emotions are under tight lock and key, still cannot at the age of twenty-eight come to terms with his sexual identity as a latent gay man. Therein lies Chiron’s complicated, conflicted inner life, buried under the trappings of a black bandana, a big flashy car, even flashier fronts on his teeth, and his hooded opaque eyes.
The three parts of the movie are divided under different names given to the protagonist: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” a nickname given to him by a fellow high-school student named Kevin and Chiron’s only friend. More significantly, his friend, not ostensibly gay himself, provides Chiron with his one and only sexual experience one night on a beach. The two boys don’t actually make love in the full sense of the word, but intuiting Chiron’s extreme reticence and longing, Kevin kisses him, unzips Chiron’s pants, and jerks him off. What may seem crass in the telling is, in fact, a scene handled with the utmost tenderness and empathy. This is Chiron’s initiation into his sexuality, never to be repeated for the duration of the movie. At the end of the film, Chiron re-connects with Kevin ten years later, and the denouement of Moonlight is presented as something incredibly sad and open ended—there are no foregone conclusions here as Chiron confesses that the night on the beach has been his only sexual experience—he admits that “no one has ever touched me since then.” Kevin, compassion welling up from within, takes Chiron in his arms but it’s not for the reason you might think. He holds Chiron like the fragile lost child he has always been.
Rhodes can sit utterly still and his face becomes a kind of musical score, revealing and concealing its psychological notations as needed.
In one of the interviews that Jenkins gave recently, he talked about the three different actors who play Chiron—Alex Hibbert as the child, Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult. In casting the older Chiron, Rhodes appeared for a reading and Jenkins didn’t even want to hear him. He thought Rhodes was all wrong for the part; he was too muscular, his bearing too masculine, and he seemed at first to lack the sensitivity needed to manifest Chiron’s sense of loss and deep repression. Rhodes did read, however, and through his eyes alone embodied all the complex emotional terrain that constitutes Chiron from inside out. And Rhodes is utterly transfixing to watch as his gaze switches from a guarded and opaque stare to one that offers a naked emotional honesty and vulnerability without saying a word. Rhodes can sit utterly still and his face becomes a kind of musical score, revealing and concealing its psychological notations as needed.
The ensemble cast of Moonlight—which, besides Mahershala Ali, includes the remarkable Naomi Harris as Chiron’s mother Paula, Janelle Monáe as Teresa, the girlfriend of Juan, and Jharrel Jerome and André Holland as Kevin, younger and older respectively—can be gently taken apart into its formative human components and scanned closely for the power within the individual identities that the cast represents.
However, this is not the case with Julie Dash’s cast of characters in her groundbreaking movie from 1991, Daughters of the Dust, now restored and in the process of being re-released all over the country. Daughters of the Dust, considerably ahead of its time, is so lyrical and choreographic that to bear down too closely on any one filmic element, or one individual character, is to warp the entire narrative and miss the overall poetic scope of the film’s arc of history, memory, and desire. Daughters is a coherent and stunning visual whole, but it seems like it’s always dancing on the beach on one of the Georgia Sea Islands; or swaying to the zephyr winds that constantly blow all those white muslin dresses worn by the dark Gullah women as they get ready to depart from the nexus of their unique hybrid culture on the island and head north.
Daughters takes place in 1902 at Ibo Landing, part tropical forest and part expansive beach. An almost idyllic backdrop of palm trees, swamp, and ravishing coastal light sets the backdrop for a film that is more epic poem than traditional movie narrative. What is amazing is that Dash (who also wrote and produced the movie) could have made this largely experimental, nonlinear, postmodern work when postmodernism was never a philosophical underpinning in mainstream American films at that time. And it still isn’t. Plus there is the racial context. Daughters is a movie about a rather obscure group of African Americans known as the Gullah people isolated off the Georgia coast. Dash, in her thirties at the time, was the first black woman filmmaker to have a feature-length movie in wide release, and it was a movie decidedly unusual for its time, more of an experimental artwork consisting of moving images than a traditional Hollywood narrative. The film is dreamy, fragmented in a deliberately gorgeous and elliptical way, looping back on itself with bits and pieces of pertinent history and rituals, metaphorically moving toward a hazy future that can be planned for, but never fully grasped.
The viewer is not on typical solid filmic ground as Daughters unfolds in a dreamlike fashion. And when I saw this movie twenty-five years ago, I thought that was one of the great things about it.
The central figure is Nana Peazant (played by Cora Lee Day), the family matriarch who is more a personification of old Africa with its religious tribal traditions and its almost hallucinatory wisdom. Nana becomes a foil for modernity—symbolized by the imminent migration to the north of most of her remaining family, including the pivotal figure of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), Nana’s granddaughter, who is pregnant but not by her distraught husband Eli (Adisa Anderson). Eula’s unborn child, who has a voice-over role and also appears in ghostly sightings, becomes a creature of two worlds: the past and the future, old African ways versus the world of science and technology symbolized by the dapper photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) who has come to Ibo Landing to document the leave-taking. There are, however, some who ultimately refuse to leave the Gullah community, like the beautiful, glamorous, and enigmatic Yellow Mary (Barbara-O) who has returned for a day to visit everyone and decides to stay behind with Nana.
Daughters of the Dust is indeed like an epic poem, an origin story of a culture’s roots embedded in ritual and supernatural powers; it’s as if Dash’s narrative had been choreographed to segments of a sacred text. Her film, with its award-winning cinematography by Arthur Jafa, is radical in nature and beyond easy categorization. The viewer is not on typical solid filmic ground as Daughters unfolds in a dreamlike fashion. And when I saw this movie twenty-five years ago, I thought that was one of the great things about it. Now having recently seen this ravishing piece of art again, I’m even more amazed that Dash was able to get this extraordinary movie made.
Under the symbolic canopy of Black Lives Matter, contemporary filmmakers appear to be more at liberty to address the concerns of contemporary black life and history. Last year we had Ava DuVernay’s Selma, this year we have her documentary 13th, Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, and the movies Loving, Fences, and Hidden Figures, not to mention I Am Not Your Negro, the explosive documentary about James Baldwin and the course of twentieth-century race relations in America. And then there is Beyoncé’s new release, “Lemonade,” with its music video that draws some of its inspiration from Julie Dash’s iconic movie.
Not all of the above-mentioned examples will be considered masterpieces like Moonlight or Daughters of the Dust—antipodes of one another in terms of construction and style, but they plumb the depths of what it means and has meant to be black in America. From the scant forty years following the end of slavery, as in Daughters of the Dust, to the moody internalized grief of Moonlight where children are neglected, bullied, and confused about who they are or might become, these two movies have given birth to some incredibly rich cinematic possibilities alive and well in the free-flowing waters of metaphor and meaning. Moonlight and Daughters of the Dust were made in the spirit of a fresh and exuberant creative drive in a Liberty City of the mind, all presided over by artists and poets of every persuasion. And is that not part of the American Dream?