Sean K. Cureton

Moonlight: The Rhetoric of Empathy

In Movie Reviews: 2016 on December 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm


Directed by Barry Jenkins
3 out of 4 stars

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that challenges your preconceptions about the way you view the world; Moonlight is one of those films. Directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is one of the most memorable representations of American gender and racial division in recent years. Depicting the life of two sensitive, young Miami, Florida natives growing up in moderate poverty, Jenkins’ latest motion picture offers a sliver of hope for a country in a state of seemingly irreparable division and economic disparity. Over the course of three acts, the life story of one Chrion “Little” is told from the perspective of three generations of lead actors, all of whom provide the means for exploring identity in a state of transition. At the heart of Jenkins’ new film is a crisis of sexual identity and the forces of masculine anxiety that threaten to topple one man’s sense of self-worth as a black man.

Writing from the perspective of a white heterosexual male of moderate financial means makes coming to Moonlight an especially tricky endeavor. As a critic, it begins to feel like a means of cultural appropriation to even begin to exchange one’s own social experience for that of Chiron’s in Moonlight. Thankfully, Jenkins doesn’t ever demand that one experience the acts depicted in Moonlight as a strictly dramatic exercise. Instead, Moonlight offers an elegiac meditation on the passions of his lead protagonists that provides the opening rhetorical flourishes for empathy instead of a conclusive argument. In the theater that I saw the film, I was left stunned by the film’s moving third act that sees a much older Chiron – played by Trevante Rhodes – embrace his childhood friend and confidante – played by André Holland – in a state of cathartic reunion and self-realization; meanwhile, a whole row of old white woman in the back of the theater didn’t know how to react or whether the experiences depicted on screen were true to real life.

There has been a rising trend in recent years that has called for the inclusion of more directorial voices in American filmmaking in terms of both gender and racial ethnicity. As a rallying cry, diversity on the big screen is a worthy one that demands to be heard now more than ever. Based on an original story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins’ Moonlight gives voice to two distinct minority voices by way of a singular narrative experience. The story of Chiron “Little” – from his time spent as a picked upon young boy, to his years as a brutally bullied teenager, and finally as a hardened street thug adult – is shockingly different from most other mainstream movie success stories. Not only is Moonlight an enveloping interrogation of queer love, but also simultaneously gives voice and representation to an entire American community otherwise invisible to the very same row of old white women left questioning the veracity of the lives represented on screen at the end of the screening I attended.

It has become apparent over the course of the past few months that we as Americans no longer know our neighbors. We wave hello to the kindly old lady across the street, and respond cordially to the requests of our co-workers and friends, but we never stop to discuss our own lives, fears, and hopes for the future. Moonlight, among many other things, accomplishes the feat of representing this form of personal dishonesty to one another and our-selves with moving compassion, empathy, and understanding. The pejorative other in society has become the scapegoat for avoiding true community, but films like Jenkins’ light the way towards a potential path out of the darkness of narcissism. We can only hope that more directors of color and differing sexual identities will be allowed to come forward and encouraged to tell their own story of an all-inclusive American dream.

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