Last year, Spotlight emerged as one of the great films of 2015 and of the decade, the All the President’s Men of our time. Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters investigating sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese. Their investigation led to the exposure of not one, but hundreds of American priests who raped children over the last fifty years, and whose deeds were repeatedly covered up by Church leaders. Spotlight is a great movie because it tells a big, urgent story with specificity, clarity, and conviction. Moonlight, which may be the best film of 2016, tells us a small but no less moving story with as much specificity and clarity and conviction and is, I think, a great film too. And while these movies have tangential connections—both of them deal with children, one way or another, being abused or neglected—it’s in their ability to unearth beauty and truth in the face of lies and sheer ugliness that these films emerge as great, moving, powerful, important works of art, movies that deserve to be remembered in the years to come.
Moonlight, the second feature film of writer-director Barry Jenkins, is a film about identity that speaks with particularity, and therefore, uncovers something universal: The people and circumstances in our lives shape us for better or worse into the people we become, and the most tragic thing about life is the hope that almost materializes but is snuffed out like a spark under a heavy foot. And yet, Moonlight wages a fierce hope for its main character, a man struggling with his identity and his sexuality, a man whose childhood sears him with an eternal silence, because speaking up isn’t in the cards.
When I walked out of the theater last week, I felt elated, completely lifted out of myself and into the world of this movie. It’s a hard world, riddled with tragedies big and small, but Jenkins unearths a great deal of beauty too. When we first meet Chiron, a young black boy growing up in the Miami hood, he’s running from bullies who keep making fun of him for being gay, a word he doesn’t yet understand at the age of seven. But Chiron doesn’t only run from mean kids at school; he runs from home too. Chiron’s mother Paula (the marvelous Naomie Harris) is addicted to drugs, and thus totally unpredictable. Sometimes she’s loving and sympathetic, and other times, when she’s strung out on crack, she turns into a screaming, ranting lunatic, and Chiron never knows which version of his mom he will meet when he crosses the threshold of their apartment.
The film traces Chiron’s journey from childhood to manhood, and is thus divided into three parts, with three different actors playing Chiron: Alex Hibbert as “Little” (Chiron at 7 or 8), Ashton Sanders as just Chiron, age 16-17, and Trevante Rhodes as “Black,” a grown-up Chiron who’s become harder and more guarded after a childhood of questioning and struggle and disappointment, but who’s offered a moment of grace in the rekindling of a relationship with Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland), a childhood friend who one day betrays him.
One of those disappointments is the feeling of betrayal Chiron experiences when he discovers that Juan, his father figure (played by Mahershala Ali) sells drugs for a living. Juan is tender and compassionate, not the qualities we imagine when we think of drug dealers, but Jenkins pushes that conflict to the forefront of the movie: When Juan discovers Paula smoking crack with some unknown male friend, he scolds her for being an irresponsible mother, but she throws his hypocrisy right in his face, and screams at him, “Are you gonna raise my son?”, her voice defensive and defiant and desperate all at once.
And yet Juan is compassionate. It’s clear to everyone that “Little” (Chiron) is gay, but Chiron doesn’t understand his sexuality, nor is he equipped to deal with the cruel jeers and torments of the schoolyard. “What’s a faggot?” 7-year-old Chiron asks Juan, his face long with shame and ignorance. Juan pauses before answering: “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” The tragedy of Moonlight is that this important relationship is compromised and ultimately short-lived. Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, and in a perfect world, Juan could teach Chiron how to live, how to be a man, how to be secure in his own skin. But Chiron cannot reconcile the fact that Juan sells drugs, that he is symbolically if not literally connected to his mother’s drug addiction.
Spotlight asks us to look honestly at the institutions we hold dear; it never asks us to give them up, only to be honest, to seek justice. Moonlight asks us to merely look as it unfolds a particular story for us, of a particular boy’s life, and one that viewers like me have likely not seen enough of in movies or in real life. True, these films are about two different things. Chiron isn’t sexually abused by priests; but he is a young poor black boy, someone who’s liable to be abused in other ways if not sexually, someone who’s liable to become a statistic in the same way that thousands of children were mere statistics to the leaders in the Roman Church. So ultimately, they’re about the same thing: the ways that power affects people at the most basic levels. Spotlight gives us the devastating numbers, and it puts the hammer in the hands of people who, confronted with the truth, must act according to conscience or remain complicit; Moonlight is the poem that breathes vitality into the statistics and the facts. We may not walk away seeing the connection between these two films, but inevitably, the connection is there to be found: Society cannot look itself in the mirror without asking if it’s done right by the “least" among us, the kids so often forgotten.
What is all the more beautiful about Moonlight is its humanity. In the end, Chiron isn’t a statistic, or a tragedy, or a lesson about society’s ills. He’s a man, with a beating heart, with a destiny, with faults and little tragedies of his own, tragedies he must bear and overcome, and with desires he must learn to live with, confront, and lean into.
With Janelle Monae, as Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend and the only stable mother Chiron has ever had. Music by Nicholas Britell.