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Watching movies: "Moonlight"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: January 22, 2017

Politics not only seeps into pop culture, it seeps into how we view it. With the inauguration Friday and the marches Saturday, I was seeing a lot through a different filter than usual. I’ve mentioned “Deepwater Horizon” in a previous post. Then there was “Blue Bloods” on CBS on Friday, with a man dropping his police-officer girlfriend because he could not handle how tough she was on the job: the sort of sexism that may only get worse when we have a president who views wives mainly as ornaments. And there was “One Day at a Time” on Netflix, with a Latina as its main character, dealing with how people around her view immigrants, and what it’s like to be a veteran with shaky institutional support, and whose daughter is wondering in the seventh episode if she is gay. (The seventh, BTW, is as far as I have watched at this point.) What will become of people and families like this in the new national order?

And then there is “Moonlight,” the aching, grimly beautiful film from writer-director Barry Jenkins. It shows a world where being gay is, for too many, something to be ashamed of; where bullying is part of daily life from childhood on; where a single act of love can lead to years of disaster simply because the act is between two young men. This, too, may be a world that will become more common as the current American leadership goes forward (not only the president but the haters in Congress and statehouses), and we should weep even more over what the personal devastation “Moonlight” shows.

The film shows us three stages in the life of an African-American man, each stage including a pivotal point in his development, with resulting change. His name even changes in each stage: from Little (played by Alex Hibbert) as a child to Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as a teen to Black (Trevante Rhodes) as an adult. From an early age he is bullied and mocked by others who see his physical weakness and question his sexuality; he has only one friend, and he fits more comfortably in society. There’s not much help to be had. His stern mother has her own struggles, and the one man who tries to guide Little is also a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who has overlooked the guilt and shame in his task until, in one of the more wrenching scenes in the movie, Little makes him see what he has wrought.

Indeed, shame is the force that drives almost all the characters, although it is expressed in different ways, with actions that at times have horrible consequences. Attempts to bury that shame further push the action, especially for Little/Chiron/Black, but there is no hiding who people are, or ignoring what they do. As a man, Black is as emotionally imprisoned as Little, as unable to find real love because he cannot see how someone like him is ever going to have it.

I first saw “Moonlight” before this weekend’s events and was moved by it then. Jenkins’ skill is in silences, and in his refusal to make people say more than they would – no grand expository speeches here – and in the heartache he shows in the faces of the splendid actors. (Ali is remarkable during his time in the film; Hibbert and Sanders are unforgettable.) With what has come to pass in recent days, I think even more about the film, and am more troubled by it, because even with glorious marches I see so much trouble ahead – so many Littles turned into so many Blacks.

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