Part 4—LaLi Mohamed's dissent: Does Barry Jenkins' widely praised feature film, Moonlight, involve a type of miserablism?
You're asking a very good question, involving a rarely used word! When he reviewed the film in the Boston Globe, Ty Burr said it doesn't.
Burr penned the passage shown below. We reproduce it for several reasons:
BURR (11/2/16): Much of “Moonlight” is terribly sad, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the film as a work of chiding urban miserabilism. The tragedies here are personal; the larger social disaster of being poor and black in the United States is mostly a distant backdrop, like the weather. (Although you can’t change the weather.)It would be a mistake, Burr said, to dismiss Moonlight as miserabilism. (The rarely used term can be spelled two different ways.)
That sadness—of not being allowed to be anything like who you are—is tempered by closely observed moments of connection. Little being taught to swim by Juan, a scene that feels as foundational to us as it does to the boy. Chiron communing with Kevin on a moonlit beach. Black at the diner counter, finally remembering who Chiron was, is, and still could be.
To his credit, Burr was willing to say that much of Moonlight is "terribly sad." In that fleeting remark, he came closer to reporting what he saw on the screen than many upper-end colleagues.
But according to Burr, the terrible sadness of this striking film is tempered by its "moments of connection." Also, "the larger social disaster of being poor and black in the United States is mostly a distant backdrop!"
People, thank goodness for that!
Remember—we're exploring the journalism about Moonlight here, not the film itself. With that in mind, we'd have to say that this passage from Burr captures some of the problems we thought we observed with the reviews of the film.
In our view, Burr's comment about that "larger social disaster" clumsily captures one of the problems with the upper-end mainstream reviews. For now, though, ever so briefly, let's ponder miserablism.
Why did Burr say it would be a mistake to tag Moonlight that way? Perhaps because he actually thought that—or perhaps because writer/director Barry Jenkins had said that very thing less than two months before.
It happened at the Toronto Film Festival, from which Moonlight emerged as a consensus smash. According to the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, "Jenkins told the audience he wanted the opposite of a 'gritty, miserablist' approach" in making his film. Jenkins had been quoted elsewhere making this same declaration.
As part of a syndrome which often obtains when a film becomes a rave-by-consensus, Burr may have internalized Jenkins' claim. Phillips quoted Jenkins' remark. Burr just repeated it for him.
Similar practices can be observed all through the major reviews. As part of the Stockholm Syndrome which obtains in the case of consensus it-films, we'd say the critics tended to break their backs avoiding mention of the suffering endured by Moonlight's protagonist. Burr joined the club with his somewhat clumsy remark, in which he said that Jenkins' film submerges a certain "larger social disaster."
Let's be clear—the suffering endured by Chiron, who's 9 when Moonlight begins, isn't unique to black kids. There are white kids with crack-addicted parents too. Presumably, kids of all stripes get bullied and beaten for being "faggots," whether they're gay or not.
Sometimes, these kids end up hanging themselves, producing small moments of notice.
That said, Jenkins' film seems to be set, as it begins, in poverty-class black Miami in the 1980s. The suffering endured by Chiron is endured by a kid who's socially defined as "black."
According to Jenkins, Moonlight captures some aspects of his own low-income Miami childhood, which involved an addicted mother. But it's perfectly clear that the studio didn't want Jenkins' striking film to be seen as some species of "miserablism."
As a result, the studio issued the upbeat overview shown below. Because Moonlight is a consensus smash, the critics launched a familiar practice. They began working from script:
MoonlightDoes Moonlight "reverberate with deep compassion and universal truths?" In search of those universal truths, does it portray "the moments, people, and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are?"
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.
Yesterday, we showed you an especially fatuous blurb, in which a critic for Variety parroted—indeed, magnified—these upbeat assertions.
In that critic's silly account, Moonlight's "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."
Moonlight's Chiron is "just like us!" Except, to be honest, he almost surely isn't.
That especially fatuous blurb is the first text a person encounters at Moonlight's official site. It's a silly account of a striking film—a film we found to be very depressing, but a film which deserves to be described in an accurate fashion.
That said, alas! Across the critical landscape, scribes stampeded to parrot the studio's portrait. This produced a series of accounts in which critics suggest the film provides something like an upbeat affirmative ending.
In our view, Burr puts this shine on the film. In his account, "you understand [in Moonlight's third and final phase] that everything up to that point has been prelude." According to Burr, the film reaches "the moment where Chiron finally emerges from the mutilated chrysalis of his life."
That strikes us as utterly fatuous. That said, other critics battled to describe the most upbeat resolution. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott cheered us up with this:
SCOTT (10/21/16): In structure and tone, "Moonlight" sets itself against the earnest, austere naturalism that has become a default setting for movies about social misery. Chiron and [his mother] certainly suffer (and inflict suffering on each other), but they are liberated from the standard indie-film arc of abjection and redemption. Mr. McCraney's play is a layered and fractured collage of voices, and while Mr. Jenkins has adjusted the shape to the linear demands of narrative filmmaking, he has retained the original's vital focus on Chiron's inner life.Let's be the tiniest bit unfair. In that passage, does Scott say that Chiron's suffering "is better" left undescribed?
I'm not sure I've ever seen a screen adaptation of a stage play that has been at once so true to the spirit of its source and so completely cinematic. Though the film, like Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," is driven more by the flow of experience than the mechanics of plot, there are plenty of twists and reversals. Chiron's friendship with a schoolmate named Kevin evolves through a dance of camaraderie and betrayal that is better witnessed than described. A significant death takes place in the interval between two of the chapters and is mentioned only in passing. Prison sentences are dealt with in the same way. Crime, violence and incarceration are facts of life, but no life can ever be the sum of such facts.
In our view, Scot's review of Moonlight is one of the most fatuous pieces of journalism we've seen in a good long time. It made us wonder if a certain cycle has returned our upper-end liberal world to the 1950s and 1960s—to the age of "radical chic," to the era in which people like Scott urged one and all to "Take a Negro to Lunch."
We'll try to get to that tomorrow. For today, Scott, like so many others, puts a shine on the arc of the film in the passage we've posted:
Chiron is "liberated from the standard arc of abjection and redemption?" If that means that nothing resembling redemption occurs, we might be inclined to agree.
"Crime, violence and incarceration are facts of life, but no life can ever be the sum of such facts?" We'll suggest that's easy for a fellow to say if the violence and incarceration in question aren't the facts of his life.
On first viewing, we found Moonlight very depressing. Somewhat puzzled, we searched for a review which described the events we had seen on the screen.
Among the major mainstream reviews, we've found no such account. We had to journey to Canada, where we heard from Lali Mohamed, who isn't a film critic.
According to this profile, Mohamed "identifies as black, gay, and Muslim." He was born in Germany; he seems to have moved to Canada when he was seven years old.
"At 18, I started identifying publicly as gay and queer," Mohamed says.
In a discussion of Moonlight, Mohamed seemed to refer to the things we had seen on the screen. "It certainly isn't a love story," he said. "It's a story of robbed innocence, of a trepid, almost smashed adolescence, of a barren adult life."
When another participant mentioned the traits which let Chiron survive, Mohamed lodged an objection. "But did he survive?" Mohamed asked. "It was as if the depth and texture of his life was stolen."
LaLi Mohamed, please! Moonlight is a story of a barren adult life? The depth and texture of Chiron's life was stolen from him?
Why is Mohamed saying such things? But also, why didn't film critics say such things, if only in the act of describing what actually occurs on the screen?
Tomorrow, we'll try to wrap this up. Concerning our press corps' contempt for the nation's black kids, we still have a long way to go.
We'll think about a famous book which developed a theme a long time ago. Has a certain cycle perhaps returned among our upper-end liberal class? To high-ranking, erudite critics like Scott, is Moonlight's badly mistreated Chiron perhaps an "invisible man?"
Tomorrow: Invisible boy; invisible scores; visible lack of interest