Part 3—The answer may be not so much: The New York Times employs three film critics.
In their year-end musings on the best films of 2016, each praised Moonlight to the skies. One employed a bit of upper-end argot.
Manohla Dargis was perhaps most comical of the three amigos. Naming the film the year's third best, she praised its "lapidary visuals" as part of a very brief capsule.
Offering his own capsule of Moonlight, A.O. Scott extended his puzzling (and gruesome) formal review, a review we'll discuss tomorrow. Naming Moonlight the year's best film, he said, "The most eloquent testimony comes when words fail, when I run into someone on the street or at a party and they say, 'Moonlight,' and I say 'yeah, Moonlight,' and we take a deep breath because nothing more really needs to be said."
Gee, thanks for all the critical help! Where can the rest of us go to get paid employment like that?
(In his earlier formal review, Scott praised the way Moonlight "is infused with what the poet Hart Crane called 'infinite consanguinity.'" He closed by saying that he still can't decide what the film "is about.")
Among the Times' film critics, Dargis and Scott are the cultural lefties, the people inclined to articulate views which will quickly be derided as examples of "political correctness." Stephen Holden, the third film critic, is cast as the worn-out old coot.
Despite or because of this casting, Holden offered a surprise in his rather lengthy capsule treatment of Moonlight.
He too picked Moonlight as the year's best film. Indeed, he said it's one of the three best films of the past decade.
That said, Holden suggested a type of possibility we've long explored at this site. Among Holden's chic, white upper-class friends, the scribe seemed to say, nobody cares about black kids.
They certainly don't care about such kids if they're also gay drug dealers. Or at least, so Holden semi-said.
Below, you see Holden's full capsule. We think he, like many others, may be caught in a bit of a scripted stampede about Moonlight. But as he ends, he raises a very important question, a question about the actual values of our own self-impressed tribe:
HOLDEN (12/11/16): Kindness and tenderness, as opposed to tear-jerking melodrama, are traits not commonly associated with movies that aim primarily to thrill and excite. Genuine intimacy is so rarely encountered in film that when you come upon it, your tendency is to suspect that somehow you're being played.Uh-oh! In the America Holden lives in, his well-to-do white liberal friends don't care about kids like Chiron! According to Holden, they'd rather not "contemplate the suffering" of a child who, at nine years of age, already seems to be traumatized—is "tiny, desperate, unwell."
But in Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight," my pick for the best movie of the year, there are moments of generosity and selflessness that take your breath away. This is an entirely human story in a medium enthralled by technology, violence and fantasy. As I watched the film, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it held me in a state of awed recognition and remembrance of the times I was touched by transformational acts of gentleness and caring.
These radiant moments soften an otherwise tough movie, about Chiron, a gay black youth played by three different actors, growing up in a Miami housing project where he acquires the armor of a street thug to survive. Along with "Brokeback Mountain" and "Boyhood," it is one of the three finest movies of the last decade or so. Is it a coincidence that all three have male protagonists who instinctively resist patriarchal brutishness?
In its brokenhearted examination of race, class, privilege and inequality in modern America, "Moonlight" is one of several excellent movies set in places beyond the country's affluent enclaves. When I raved about "Moonlight" to several well-to-do white liberal friends and described Chiron, they politely took note but behaved as if I were telling them to eat their spinach.
These same people couldn't wait to see films like "The Big Short" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," about the financial chicanery and decadence of rich white crooks. This, then, is the America we're living in: The haves would rather not contemplate the suffering of the have-nots. And we are shocked to discover that our indifference has consequences.
Is Holden right about his friends? We have no way of knowing.
That said, we'll suggest that his unflattering claim might be true of his film critic colleagues and friends. We've read many major reviews of Moonlight. We can't say we've found a single reviewer who recorded the amount of suffering on display in this striking film.
To state the obvious, there's nothing "wrong" with making a film which puts a large amount of suffering on display. It may be that something is wrong when major critics review such a film, but seem unable to see, or unwilling to describe, that large amount of pain, and the terrible harm it produces.
In his own five-paragraph capsule, even Holden tends to toe this critical line. He does mention the fact that "suffering" is on display in Jenkins' striking film. But he mentions this fact in passing, quite late in his account.
In the main, Holden describes a film which seems to be dominated by other qualities—by kindness, tenderness and genuine intimacy; by moments of generosity and selflessness; by transformational acts of gentleness and caring.
Is that what Moonlight is like?
To state the obvious, any answer will involve matters of judgment. That said, that's very much what Moonlight is like according to the corporate entities which promoted the film.
Let's be clear: We're speaking here about the suits. We aren't necessarily describing Jenkins' view of his own film, which is about, and not about, his own early years in Miami.
Jenkins made a striking film; the suits sold it as uplifting. We haven't seen the full press kit, but this is the official summary offered by the distributor, A24:
Moonlight(According to the leading authority, A24 is "an American independent entertainment company founded [in 2012] by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges and based in New York City. It specializes in film production, finance, television production and distribution...Since their formation, A24 has been one of the most well-known independent film companies.")
A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. At once a vital portrait of contemporary African American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, Moonlight is a groundbreaking piece of cinema that reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths. Anchored by extraordinary performances from a tremendous ensemble cast, Jenkins’s staggering, singular vision is profoundly moving in its portrayal of the moments, people, and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are.
A24 promoted Moonlight as "an intensely personal and poetic meditation" which "reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths." At the film's official site, the usual suspects color within these lines, as our journalists typically do when 1) a film comes from major established talent, or 2) when a film has been selected, by guild consensus, as a critical favorite.
To a remarkable extent, our journalists tend to be skilled at working from script. At Moonlight's official site, this is the first critical blurb that's offered:
Why Moonlight MattersAs it turns out, Chiron is just like us! Chiron is looking for love, "just like" we are.
Its story may be sprinkled with drug dealers and addicts. But its message is clear: The world is richer and deeper and more complex than we ever imagined, and even its most troubled characters—just like us—are looking for love.
The Hollywood Reporter
Warning! People who peddle such masterful nonsense may not care about black kids! We've discussed this general problem for years. We'll return to the topic tomorrow.
For today, A24 is a business. Presumably, its suits were hoping that you and yours, and Holden's friends, would purchase tickets to Moonlight.
That said, did any critic, at any news org, describe the amount of suffering on display in this striking film? Did any critic even come close to describing the volume of suffering undergone by the child who's only 9 years old at the start of this film?
In our travels around the Net, the answer to date is no. We had to turn to LaLi Mohamed, up Canada way, to see Chiron's suffering described.
Holden seemed to say that his friends don't care about the suffering of kids like Chiron. Is it possible that his erudite, well-scripted colleagues may perhaps be a bit like his friends?
Tomorrow: LaLi Mohamed describes Chiron; Scott takes a Negro to lunch.