Smarter, better people than me have written about Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins’ megaton bomb of artistic triumph. Honestly, I almost didn’t write this at all, seeing no need to add yet another voice of praise to what is already a fairly deafening chorus. Then I remembered what Roger Ebert, the patron saint of modern pop criticism, said in Life Itself: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Redundant or not, I have to tell you why Moonlight matters.
A large group of people who voted for Donald Trump legitimately didn’t understand the palpable and substantive depression and fear that set in for millions after the election. A bigot who taunted the disabled and those of different races, picked a running mate who openly hates LGBTQ individuals and laughingly joked about sexually assaulting women is about to be the symbolic and literal face of our nation. “How we got here” is only worth asking now in the course of answering “how do we fix this?”
Moonlight is how we start to fix this. Beyond shouting down, disempowering and casting out the truly unconscionable who nakedly embrace homophobia, racism and misogyny, the social correction that needs to occur is a booster shot of empathy. And Roger was right: We have a great tool already.
Moonlight follows Chiron, a beautiful soul trapped in an ugly life. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is addicted to crack and is an emotional torturer. The film is a triptych, splitting Chiron’s life into his time as a young boy, called “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert); a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders); and an adult, nicknamed “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). The first third is consumed by the omnipresence of drugs, from the brutal addiction of Little’s mom to the occupation of his reluctant savior, a dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). The second part focuses on the claustrophobia Chiron experiences while discovering his homosexuality as a pubescent in an environment that violently punishes the different. The final act follows the tender-hearted Black, who wears faux swagger and hardness as a protective shield until he rediscovers the man (André Holland) who can see through his every charade.
No one has lied to you: Moonlight is everything you’ve heard; it is a gorgeous, lyrical, spiritual, moving symphony of visual poetry that uses silence as a paintbrush to color the most vibrant muted emotional complexities. Jenkins coaxes consistent, complex performances from three actors playing one character and gives space for every supporting player to add their own nuance and depth. It’s a masterpiece, a triumph of the art form. And then some.
I will never personally experience how it feels to grow up as a person of color confronting nascent homosexuality in that environment. But for just under two hours, I got as close as I ever will. The empathy machine performed its magic, making it impossible for me to ever again confuse statistics or abstract data for human beings like Chiron.
Please, don’t let colorful, noisy tripe like La La Land steal the spotlight from the very type of art we need to fix this mess we’re in. Please see Moonlight. And take someone who needs to see it with you.
This review previously appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.