Culture

Moonlight: A Plea for Pity for a Black, Gay Statistic

Ashton Sanders in Moonlight (A24 Films)
Intersectionality is the new stereotyping.

Moonlight is structured in three parts, separating the case history of a black gay Florida youth into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Each phase is titled by nicknames — Little, Chiron, Black — that were bestowed and then, eventually, self-chosen so that identity becomes a matter of labels rather than “self-actualization,” the term social workers once preferred.

To realize this fragmented character study, writer-director Barry Jenkins cast three different actors to portray each stage of scared, vulnerable, damaged masculinity. Seeing Little (Alex R. Hibbert) so oppressed by neighborhood bullies that he runs away hunched over and hides out in abandoned drug dens would break the heart of even the most insensitive racist homophobe, and that may essentially be Jenkins’s ideal audience. Moonlight pleads for pity for a gay, black character, and pity is always for the weak.

Pity has made Moonlight the liberal cause for this movie season. Critics, festival programmers, and filmgoers who don’t usually bother with movies about blacks or gays have rallied in unanimous praise for this film that makes them feel not only sorry for blacks and gays but better about themselves. Their self-righteous “diversity” keeps to the surface of black and gay experience. In the hip-hop era, when Little becomes the teen Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and acts on his first crush with an experimenting schoolmate, he experiences humiliation and devastating betrayal. Later, as the bitter, insolent adult Black (Trevante Rhodes), Jenkins’s protagonist literally embodies a statistic — a frightening, miserable statistic who, we are meant to believe, has no sexual life, despite his overwhelming physical presence (eroticism mixed with threat), yet longs for the fulfillment denied him in youth. So he is the more to be pitied.

The excessively charitable atmosphere at Moonlight’s New York Film Festival press screening led me to recall how Precious similarly won over a condescending audience. We are still mired in the Obama Effect of movies that congratulate patronizing racial attitudes. Through its gay element, Moonlight fits now-fashionable “intersectionality,” the academic term for colliding political identities that allow groups to assert special pleading above the regular economic, social, spiritual, romantic difficulties of everyday life.

In Jenkins’s debut film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), characters from San Francisco’s black bourgeoisie seemed to have no reason for being beyond their Millennial desire for elite status. But that was just before Obama’s election brought the idea of the black gentry into cultural favor. It’s not easy to tell whether Moonlight is more personal than that or whether Jenkins’s read of the times and its class fantasies is calculating — or just self-indulgent.

Pity has made Moonlight the liberal cause for this movie season.

On the plus side: Moonlight breaks through Hollywood’s benign neglect of African-American male sensitivity, which is usually displaced by macho stereotypes — the belligerent fronts typified by Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. But is Moonlight’s Trayvon Martin–type martyrdom any better? Moonlight offers the same horrible patronization that was celebrated with the recent re-issue of Portrait of Jason, the mawkish 1967 pseudo-documentary that exploited a black gay hustler, junkie, and alcoholic. Obama-era distributors and critics praised its scandale as “insight,” proving that black and gay film stereotypes have not changed for 50 years.

The exhibitionism in Portrait of Jason was off-putting. It’s fascinating that, in Moonlight, Jenkins dares to treat the subject of his protagonist’s sex. Moonlight’s concluding scenes show a physical transformation through which Black (Rhodes) becomes a super-macho adult: muscular and foreboding on the outside but essentially a fawning, delicate, adolescent romantic inside. He’s still hungry for acceptance and a hug.

Jenkins gets that hug from his mainstream sympathizers by appealing to their most banal sympathies. When Black, an ex-con turned drug dealer, gives in to a pathetic encounter with someone from his past, it’s scored to the anachronistic Barbara Lewis r&b hit “Hello, Stranger.” But the scene might have been richer had Black and his paramour reacted to a less maudlin pop artifact (Sylvester’s “Mighty Real,” Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl, You Need a Change of Mind,” LL Cool J’s “Jingling Baby”) that stimulated black gay consciousness.

#related#Moonlight easily plays into black and gay condescension. The fatherless Little, son of a single, crack-addict mother (Naomie Harris), finds a mentor in teasingly suave Juan (Mahershala Ali), who hides his own shady (bisexual?) nature. Juan recounts a Cuban matron’s maxim — “Black boys are blue in the moonlight” — that combines mystery with sentimentalizing mythos that Jenkins should reject. Andre Techine surpasses this in Being 17 when an alienated Algerian youth secludes himself, disrobes, and swims in the midnight blue waters of a French mountain lake — a superb visual image of romantic isolation. Jenkins does not achieve that level of personal awareness or poetic expression. Hinting at a boy’s desperation for fatherly guidance merely alludes to the social catastrophe that liberal apologists avoid when condescending to the culture’s diminishment of black males.

Instead of critiquing social traditions as Techine and Britain’s Terence Davies do in their great films about gay self-realization, Jenkins gets saccharine. Juan’s woman (played by neo-hip-hop singer Janelle Monáe) ingratiates herself to Little with the neo-Mammy bromide “There’s nothing but love and pride in this house.” A better film would show us rather than tell us. This is bathos. Moonlight’s best moments come in Little’s reaction to Juan’s affection, but later scenes of Chiron’s erotic confusion and Black’s maudlin self-pity (he wears muscular drag yet succumbs to weakness) insist that viewers feel sorry for black gay males. It’s nothing more than the vivisection of a political demographic.

***

Fire at Sea

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea is an intersectionality documentary. Rosi crosses the fishing community of Italy’s Lampedusa island with immigrants disembarking from chaos in Nigeria, Syria, Libya; the rooted and the stateless; the working-class and the indigent. The contrast brings out common humanity but also reveals Rosi’s simplistic moral equivalence. This very aestheticized non-fiction asks pity for Samuele, a Lampedusa boy just coming of age, as well as for the mulish adults around him and the anonymous suffering black faces. Before intersectionality, Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema and Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story used cinema to discover unexplored cultures and new avenues of feeling. Rosi’s skill elicits global political guilt.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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