In praise of: Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Walking through the métro, the word came to my mind and repeated itself, as if insisting to be known until I recognised it: tenderness. That now celebrated scene where the man cradles the boy - a black American Pietà – against the nineteenth century inkiness of the Atlantic Ocean.

In this scene where the man and child are one: ‘I hated my mother, too’ (and the camera shoots from below, as if we are there, with them, watching from a close distance).

And then the tiny child, tenderly, carefully carrying an over-sized pot full of boiling water, which rumbles acoustically into the bath, surrounded by cracked tiles. His arms are so thin, as if he were the vulnerable child, forever outside your protection (the child that haunts my nightmares, any mother’s nightmares). The child you cannot keep safe.

Or the back of the battered teenage boy’s neck as he submerges himself in the water to stem the bleeding. Blood stuck with white paper from injuries inflicted by another who had expressed love for him the night before (quietly, shyly without words in front of the ocean).

To speak about this film, there are choices.

Like so many others, I was deeply affected by Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight.

At times, it was as if something turned inside me. In those moments, I couldn’t help but bring the story back to me and my life. That child could be my son, hiding out there (in the darkened room). Even though they share nothing at all, other than their age.

The teenager, awkwardly carrying his books close to his chest in a pathetic protective gesture, reminded me of someone I used to know (who, though many years older, could be his brother). Even though they share nothing at all, other than a fleeting expression on their faces. 

Often the most affecting scenes in Moonlight were left under-developed. Take, for example, the moment when Little dances at an after-school class. The camera is positioned so we can only see glimpses of his happiness, the bodies of other children obscuring the child’s movements.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this moment could have been ‘transformative’ – the moment when Little finally realises what it is to be free. Instead, here, we can barely see the dancing child, hidden by the moving bodies of anonymous others. 

The portrayal of Chiron’s mother (played by Naomie Harris) is another source of interest for me. Another more literal director would have dutifully provided the back-story, listed the various traumas that led her to neglect her son and become an addict, Jenkins refuses to do this. And this refusal makes this film political, while also making it true.  

Jenkins understands the power of bringing attention back to the filming process itself and this was why I wasn’t surprised to read that his favourite film director is Claire Denis – the great artist of contemporary French cinema who infuses her films with an intense corporeality (and sensuality) making the creation of cinema seem to be ‘physical work’ – never natural …

At the beginning, when Little is trying to escape his persecutors the camera moves raggedly behind him, hand-held as if forcing us to feel something of the terror of the little boy, so desperate to escape. (But as we are behind him, we are unable to see his face).

Arguments could be made about the politics behind this; the way women (and perhaps film directors who don’t fit the typical mould) understand that the act of seeing, and being seen, is never neutral. It is embodied, it is enacted. Arguments could be made.

Jenkins’ other cited reference is the Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai.

Knowing this, that final scene between the adult men, after a long separation, takes on nuances carried in memories from other cinematic love stories set in Hong Kong, in Buenos Aires ... The debt lies not just in Jenkins’ act of homage to the Wong Kar-wai aesthetic, but also his awareness of how powerful unspoken emotion can be (as the essence of a romantic sensibility as portrayed in art).   

Remember that lingering shot on Kevin’s face in the diner where the colour of the wall echoes the colour of the man’s skin and the way the camera just rests there for longer than expected, gently. The expression of Kevin’s face is full of emotion, but we are aware that he is being seen.

Or the fact that it was a sugary song from a jukebox that was put forward as the reason for the late-night phone call that forced Black to wake.