Gazing at the blank screen in the dark before the new Barry Jenkins film Moonlight projects on high (my second viewing), I find myself thinking back to my pre-teen days, when I was the same age as Little (Jaden Piner), growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, back before it became the alt-hippie enclave it is today. I’m talking about back in the mid-to-late 1970s, when it was little more than a small still-segregated Southern town, and I was a young black boy trying to avoid walking into the inevitable narrative of mass incarceration that loomed large.
It is funny now, to consciously rewrite or update the narrative a bit. Having just recently finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which is all about the historic transition we’ve made from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration (which becomes a defining period marker during the 1980s – rooted in the President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs). Mass incarceration is a systemic approach bolstered by legal, social, and political efforts that more than ably replaced Jim Crow as a cultural and economic driver of American society.
No one was really talking about mass incarceration though in the late-1970s, but the media, such as it was, sure worked hard to advance a narrative about single mothers and deadbeat fathers, coded for all to know and understand that they were talking about black folks. The real attention always settled on the kids, and the fears about us. We weren’t alright. Word around the campfire was that we were on our way to transforming into a generation of criminals, also soon to be another (locked and loaded and quite) coded term.
Back in my day, I went to the movies often – that’s an epic understatement, truth be told. As a teenager, I damned near lived in the movie theaters around cool green Asheville. I spent my weekly allowance or the cash I collected from moving lawns and raking leaves either on books (my side passion hustle) or at the movies.
When I think about the geeky teen version of myself, taking in all of those narratives, in whatever format I could lay my hands and eyes on, I play another revisionist game, questioning whether or not it mattered to me that I rarely, if ever, saw characters who looked or sounded anything like me. I fed on what was available at the time, without much concern for the cultural value of the representations. I can rationalize it, to a point, because I know there simply weren’t that many examples of black characters – positive or negative – for me to check out. I didn’t get a day off like Ferris, so I accepted the vicarious thrill and moved on.
So, I’m trying to imagine what my teenage self would have thought about Moonlight.
Jenkins, following up his critically acclaimed 2008 debut feature Medicine for Melancholy, chose to adapt Moonlight from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by MacArthur Fellow Tarell Alvin McCraney. Jenkins and McCraney both grew up in Miami, Florida (in Liberty City), born a year apart to mothers who struggled with drug addiction and contracted AIDS.
I am a decade older, but able to appreciate the compounding factors that burdened their childhoods with even greater negative expectations. We’re not talking about the romanticized fantasies of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys or kids playacting social anarchy in Lord of the Flies. Born at the dawn of rap, Jenkins and McCraney missed the boogie-down party vibe that rocked the Bronx, crashing headlong as teens into the gangsta craze, with its dangerous embrace of machismo, to the point of excluding any and all sensitivity beyond the code of the streets.
Papa wasn’t a rolling stone anymore; he was a hard rock behind bars and Mama wasn’t seen as such a dear to this generation of boys. It is maybe the different ways we see our mamas that delineates the divide between myself and Jenkins/McCraney. I had not only a loving and faithful mother, but also a village of female elders, starting with my grandmother followed by a host of aunts (some blood, but most not, though no less family). I was their baby, the only male child in the immediate brood, therefor the young prince of this loving kingdom.
But still, nagging doubts about the future plagued me. Would I, could I break the cycle, make it happen by staying out of trouble long enough to get an education? Trouble, like hell, was always round the corner, able to find you no matter how well you hid or how fast you could run.
Just look at Moonlight’s Chiron, from the mean streets of Miami, always running. In three brief chapters – titled based on how people refer to the character – a trio of relative newcomers bring Chiron – Jaden Piner as a pre-teen, Alex Hibbert as a teenager, and Ashton Sanders as a young adult – to life, creating distinct impressions in search of what becomes a fully-realized whole, far greater than the sum of its parts.
Think for a moment, as you look at the image from the film’s promotional poster, and see how seamlessly the three photographic strips of these performers merge. Chiron is a cobbled-together social and cultural experiment, a Frankenstein’s monster seeking a sign that he might have a soul buried underneath his early confusion regarding his questions about manhood and sexual roles that dog him into his teenage years, causing him to attempt to squeeze such concerns out of existence (which leads to a simultaneous implosion/explosion that damned near destroys him) before Chiron refashions himself, adding an exterior of gold fronts and hardened muscle.
But we know he’s not free, at least not when we see that adult iteration, the one where he has assumed the (inevitable) position. Chiron is the street dealer, the drug thug of our social nightmares, cruising around in the tricked out ride with the crown on the dash – no doubt, a holdover signifier from his childhood days with Juan (Mahershala Ali), the pusher who sought to take care of him, despite also selling drugs to his mother (Naomi Harris).
We understand why Chiron surrendered to the life, having watched the kids mercilessly bully him – teasing him about the way he walks, the clothes he wears, and the perception that he’s gay – while his mother failed to offer any love to him or herself during her descent. Was this fate bearing down on him? If so, you might want to ask how fate could be so heartless, but you realize that besides lacking a noticeable pulse, fate ain’t got no mouth to give voice to any simple rationalization.
I feel for Chiron, caught in situational shackles that are certainly not of his making, but I hear Me’Shell Ndegeocello (“Dead Nigga Blvd, Pt, 1”) speaking soft and low, “no longer do I blame others for the way that we be / niggas need to redefine what it means to be free.”
Sounds harsh, I know, but the tough love stance finds credence in the narrative, although it requires a degree of re-orienting from Chiron to his friend Kevin, the only other character we see grow in that chopped and screwed way, via a disparate trio of faces. I keyed in on the grown version, played by André Holland, a familiar face, seen in quietly righteous support in 42 and Selma, but also in Black or White as a hopeless user, the kind of anonymous figure lost in the supply and demand game. Not a player, just a sucker being played.
As a child and teenager, Kevin mimicked socially accepted roles, wearing the commodified version of what black boys should be like the latest pair of sneakers. As a young boy, he wrestled and played the role like a tough kid. The teenage Kevin boasts of sexual conquests – we assume them to be true – like an old school lover on the hook of a rap track.
But by the time Holland steps into the shoes; the brand name has worn thin, exposing the soft soul after life has taken its toll. Somehow, on his own, Kevin took Ndegeocello’s call to heart, redefining for himself “what it means to be free.”
When Chiron returns to Miami for a visit, making a bee-line for the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook, the man in the apron, still quick with a joke and a smile, has a knowing wisdom twinkling in his eyes. Life has taught him some things, and more to the point, Kevin has taken the lessons to heart and been lifted up.
I caught up with Holland after my second time around with Moonlight. (I’ve since gone back for a third follow-up and I’m plotting to sneak in at least one more screening. It is that novel you want to re-read as soon as you reach the final page or the song cycle that just stays on repeat, piping into you headphones as you stroll through life.)
I’ve been anxious to talk about the film, seeking someone who, like me, might see some reflection of themselves or people who might intimately know where Chiron and Kevin are coming from, having come from similar places.
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terrencetodd: What strikes me about Kevin, as a character, is looking at him and his entire arc, he feels like the most complete and fully realized figure, in a way.
Holland: I love that he’s a really complicated character, and even though he’s not the central character of the story, he goes on a pretty remarkable journey. He goes from being a kid and teenager who’s performing what he thinks masculinity is to bragging about the women he’s had and all of that stuff to, by the time we see him in the third chapter, he’s dropped that mask and trying to live a more authentic life. That’s a pretty big leap.
terrencetodd: Yeah, it definitely is and that’s a real tribute to you because in that last chapter you convince us that this guy, this is just who he is and he’s lived enough to be comfortable with who he is now, in a way that a lot of us – I mean I’m in my late-40s and I’m not sure I’m as collected in terms of who I am, but you give us the sense that he’s live enough to know who he is and that he’s alright with that.
Holland: I’ve got to say, we’ve done a lot of interviews and you’re the first person to point that out and I really appreciate that because I feel the exact same way. I’ve tried to express it and I think people don’t quite see it because that’s not what the story is about and you’ve got to really look at it to catch it, but that is it. And that’s a remarkable leap for a dude growing up in that neighborhood, who doesn’t have a father or a father figure that we know of. To find that out on his own, in his late-20s. I’m past my late-20s, have been for a long time, but I still struggle with those things, like you said, so he’s a pretty fascinating character.
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So much of the early buzz has centered on the film’s investigation of black masculinity, identity, bullying, and drug abuse, but the idea of successfully making the transition from boyhood to manhood sometimes gets glossed over. How long have we had to wait for black characters, contemporary everyday folks, who live these kinds of lives, writ large on the screen before us? Forget the broad draggy humor, the stand-up action power plays, the righteous, historic icons, and the costumed sidekicks-in-waiting.
At one point, Chiron pulls a gun, but the trigger is never squeezed. These streets, mean and hot in their own right, are not bathed in blood or propelled by the rhythm of shots fired. Death and dying, while clear and present, remain dangers without drawing constant attention. You don’t always see the acts; sometimes you just feel the absence left in their wake.
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terrencetodd: I’ve read a lot about the film and you guys, going through these interviews, have been hit quite a bit with the topic of black masculinity, but that is such a central part of this story. And it is seen in such a different way than we normally see it in movies. So how do you feel about, not just this film, but how we look at black masculinity, in general?
Holland: I think it’s usually complicated. A lot of the time we’re taught to man up, that whole thing, which comes from a history of violence that has been acted out on the black body, for a very long time. I think that mothers and fathers, in order to keep their children alive and keep them safe, taught them that they had to be tough, to have a strong shell. But at the same time, as we get out into the world, we see nowadays that being too tough or too much of a threat can also have serious repercussions.
So I feel like black men are often caught in this middle place, of trying to navigate or stepping into manhood, while trying to stay alive and not scaring anybody to the point where they feel threatened. And at the same time trying to discover for themselves – ourselves, I should say – individually who we are and what we want. What excites us?
To answer these questions for ourselves, which on the regular is hard enough to do, but when you add the complexities of being black in America, it is incredibly difficult. We don’t often get enough credit for that journey, for that struggle. I think a lot is put on black boys, at a very early age, you know, too much, and they don’t have the chance to discover who they are and what they want.
And then you look at the fact that the black community itself has been broken up in a lot of ways. I grew up in a small town with a village of people, you know, where there were always people looking out for me, keeping an eye on me, so that they could get back to my parents about how I was doing. So there was a safe space for me to ask these questions. But if you look at some other kids who don’t have that, how are they meant to figure it out? It’s a scary thing, man.
But I love the way Barry handles that, in this movie. Although these kids are in a very difficult environment, they are still asking these questions. They are still struggling with these issues and trying to move their lives forward. And when you come out of it and look at the actual lives that the material is based on, when you look at Tarell McCraney’s life and you look at Barry’s life, both of them grew up about two blocks away from each other, in Liberty City, and both of their mothers struggled with crack addiction, and you look at where their lives have gone, Tarell going off to become a prominent playwright and a MacArthur Genius Fellow and a professor at different universities and Barry has become a filmmaker and artist in his won right. I don’t know how anyone could look at their lives and feel like you can dismiss anybody, you know? Or that’s not value in taking care of these young black boys and allowing them the opportunity to discover themselves.
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There’s a kindred sensibility, echoing from a pair of scenes in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, another Toronto International Film Festival favorite of mine. The loose and rambling spirit fueling that narrative, propelling its young protagonist Star (Sasha Lane) and the cadre of raging footloose hustlers creates an odyssey with no long-term goal or purpose.
Someone randomly asks Star what she dreams about, in terms of envisioning a future for herself, and the question confuses her. No one has ever asked her or any of these kids such a thing. Having no sense or thought of a future is like having one that dead-ends in the penitentiary or the cemetery. I remember that feeling, although every time I write those words or speak them aloud, they sound false, inauthentic. How could I feel or know such hopelessness?
On the Batman soundtrack, Prince sang, I’ve seen the future and it will be, but I recall the very real fear of looming hopelessness, the seeming inevitability of it. The thing is though, I also had dreams to guide me.
But for most of their adolescence, Star and Chiron never dared to consider the idea. The future would be, but maybe not for them, at least not at first. Forget nightmares and dreamscapes, life blinds them to hope.
Yet, somehow, in the midst of the struggle, they catch a glimpse of what lurks beyond. We should be mindful though, not just of Star and Chiron, or people like me (every day I smile on the silly kid that I was, the one who took such joy in the opportunity and encouragement that came my way), but the Kevins of the world. We don’t see their struggles, their epiphanies, or the quiet lives they end up leading on the other side. But they lift us up, as they do the heavy lifting for themselves.