Conclusion—Invisible boy and man: Is Moonlight "a perfect film?"
In our view, no—it isn't. We don't mean that as a criticism. Presumably, there are no perfect films.
We ask the question because Ann Hornaday called Moonlight "a perfect film" in her Washington Post review. In our view, the comment captures the unattractive, throwback fawning visited by major critics upon Bary Jenkins' Oscar-nominated film.
To our own practiced ear, that fawning recalls an earlier era—an era of major condescension in the arena of so-called "race."
Before we discuss that matter, let's discuss a possible imperfection in Moonlight. We refer to Jenkin's "episodic" narrative style.
Jenkins' impressionistic story-telling leaves basic facts unresolved. Basic questions go unanswered, questions such as these:
What the heck happened to Juan? Also, who is Teresa?
Juan is the neighborhood drug dealer who shows compassion for Chiron when Chiron is only 9. Teresa is the woman with whom Juan lives in a "tidy airy house" which carries just the slightest scent of a Miami-based Ozzie and Harriett.
Juan's brilliant scenes with Chiron dominate the first of Moonlight's three chapters, in which Chiron is 9. But how strange! In the middle chapter of the film, Chiron is 16 or 17—and Juan is no longer there.
In a fleeting remark, Chiron's mother says she hasn't seen Teresa "since the funeral." Is Juan, Chiron's role model, dead?
(In the New York Times, A. O. Scott says "a significant death takes place in the interval between two of the chapters," but he doesn't say how he knows this, and he doesn't say who died. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers notes that "Juan is gone" by the second part of the film and "it's not hard to figure out" why. In fact, it's impossible to figure out why, and Travers doesn't share his idea. This type of confusion stems from Jenkins' choices as story-teller.)
Juan has disapeared by the time Chiron is 16. Teresa, meanwhile, is still on the scene—and she's still shown being kind to Chiron. She lets him spend the night at her house when life at his own house is too chaotic.
She gives him money, and we see his mother steal it from him. Amounts are not disclosed.
Who the heck is Teresa? She seems a bit on the college-y side, and, whenever we see her, she's being kind to Chiron. But we get no explanation of where her money comes from, or of how she has managed to remain in that nice, airy home with extra rooms and clean sheets.
We don't know what happened to Juan. We know little about Teresa. Why was she ever with Juan?
Question! Is Teresa involved in the drug trade too—the drug trade which has turned Chiron's mother into an addict and an abuser of her own child? We're given no way to answer such questions. Nor did such unpleasant questions occur to any reviewer.
As part of Jenkins' narrative style, we're left in the dark about basic facts. For what it's worth, this isn't the way you'd normally tell someone a story.
This fuzzy, "poetic" narrative style can be frustrating at times. Beyond that, it helps mainstream reviewers fashion accounts of Moonlight in the airbrushed ways they may prefer.
Make no mistake—our major critics often told us the stories they like in their reviews of Moonlight. In Hornaday's review, for example, the 9-year-old Chiron is "the son of a loving mother (Naomie Harris) battling an addiction to drugs."
In truth, there is no scene in this film which justifies that cheerful account of Chiron's addicted, abusive mother. At Slate, Dana Stevens colored with the same box of crayons, but she bore down a bit harder. She closed her review like this:
STEVENS (10/20/16): Moonlight’s most noteworthy achievement, in the age of both Black Lives Matter and the backlash against identity politics, is that Jenkins mounts no soapboxes and brandishes no manifestos in his attempt to illuminate the inner life of this troubled boy turned teenager turned man. Instead he shows us the love that other characters feel for Chiron, made tangible by the generous performances of co-stars Harris, Ali, Monáe, and Holland. Chiron’s search for sexual and personal identity matters because he himself does—if not to the often cruel educational, social, and legal systems that surround him, then at least to that small group of people who love him. By the time Moonlight reaches its ravishing conclusion, that group includes us, too.According to that presentation, Jenkins shows us the love Chiron's mother feels for him, along with the love of Juan and Teresa. We're told that it's Chiron's school which is cruel, although there's no real basis, within the film, for making that scripted claim either.
Chiron's abusive mother is loving—it's his school which is cruel! Welcome to the world of our upper-end "journalistic" elite, a world in which people present all the news that's fit for you to hear.
We're sure that Stevens is a good decent person. We knew Hornaday and her husband a tad, some time ago, along with their adorable daughter. We can assure you that Hornaday's a good decent person!
That said, our journalists will twist and writhe to keep their accounts presentable. In this case, this involves the kind of conduct which routinely gets derided as "political correctness." We never use that highly charged term ourselves. But increasingly, that highly charged, politicized term refers to actual conduct.
In our view, Stevens is sanitizing her account of this striking film. In the process, we think she turns Chiron into an invisible boy and man.
According to Stevens, Moonlight starts with "a troubled boy" but eventually reaches a "ravishing conclusion." We'd say both parts of that claim are distorted and cruel—although, in fairness, it must be said that everyone else describes some upbeat version of this narrative arc.
(According to the Boston Globe, Chiron "finally emerges from the mutilated chrysalis of his life." According to the Chicago Tribune, Moonlight ends "with a plaintive, perfect final shot of a man who has found a measure of peace at last." According to the Wall Street Journal, Jenkins has "mapped out a journey that’s transformative." According to the New York Times, Chiron has "grow[n] toward an understanding of himself and his world." According to the Washington Post, Moonlight is "a film that, in its knockout of a final sequence, turns out to be all heart, all the time." Stop us before we cut-and-paste more!)
Does Moonlight feature a "ravishing conclusion?" In this profile, Jenkins says he doesn't regard the closing image of his striking film as "hopeful" (though "there's a sense of healing to it").
In that assessment, Jenkins is virtually alone. All across the critical landscape, reviewers found ways to claim that Moonlight reaches a ravishing, upbeat conclusion. We had to travel to Canada to find someone saying this:
"It's a story of robbed innocence, of a trepid, almost smashed adolescence, of a barren adult life...Did [Chiron] survive? It was as if the depth and texture of his life was stolen."
That was LaLi Mohamed, describing a film no reviewer seems to have seen. He says it's not even clear that Chiron has "survived" at the time of Moonlight's ravishing conclusion.
Why would Mohamed say that? Could it because he actually watched the film in question? Let's leave the sunshine brigade for a minute and talk about who Chiron has become by the time of Moonlight's conclusion, which so many critics have struggled to portray as upbeat, hopeful, ravishing:
"Who is you, Chiron?" Who Chiron has become:That's what has become of the "indescribably mild and unmalicious," 9-year-old boy we met at the start of this film—a 9-year-old boy who is already "tiny, desperate, unwell." Could this be what Mohamed was referencing with his ridiculous comments?
Chiron is now 26 or 27. He's a street-level drug dealer in Atlanta. We see that he carries a gun on the street. As with Juan, so too with Chiron. He could be killed tomorrow.
He has apparently served a prison term for a brutal assault he committed while in high school, his reaction to a brutal assault committed against him.
He now dresses and looks like Juan; his car is outfitted like Juan's. He is cartoonishly muscled, in a way which is hard to reconcile with the unkempt, skin-amd-bones mess we saw him to be in the film's second chapter, when he was 16.
Cinematically, Jenkins portrays Chiron's other-worldly musculature in a way which seems meant to convey the idea that it's an inhuman form of armor. When he reunites with his old friend Kevin, he's chided for his cartoonish muscles and for his gold fronts (coverings for his teeth).
When Chiron visits his mother at a rehab facility of some kind, he lashes out at her with anger and contempt. He says he still can't sleep at night because he still has nightmares.
When Chiron speaks with Kevin, he reports the fact which struck us as most depressing of all. He has apparently had one intimate sexual experience in his entire life. That experience occurred ten years before, and it consumed perhaps two minutes. He's had the benefit of no intimacy or human touch since then.
We're sorry, but by the time of Moonlight ravishing conclusion, we've seen a series of deeply tragic events. We've seen a traumatized 9-year-old boy—a 9-year-old boy who's being abandoned and abused by his "loving mother"—evolve into a nightmare-ridden drug dealer who could be shot and killed at any time.
But so what? In the land of the critics, we're supposed to think we're observing a triumph because Chiron is finally able to identify as gay in a way he's never done before. We're supposed to regard this advance as a ravishing conclusion. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott even says this:
SCOTT (10/20/16): And perhaps the most beautiful thing about "Moonlight" is its open-endedness, its resistance to easy summary or categorization. I guess I'm back where I started, trying to decide what this movie is about. As with any original and challenging work, the answer may take a while to emerge, but what strikes me now is less the pain of Chiron's circumstances than the sense that, in spite of everything, he is free.We're sorry, but that is just utterly silly. In the eyes of A. O. Scott, Chiron has become an invisible man.
Let's be clear. In a normal situation, it's presumably a very good thing when kids who come to see that they're gay are able to identify as gay and seek out love in the world on that basis. Presumably, it's even an advance that Chiron is now able to do that, to the extent that we've seen that occur.
That said, Chiron's is not a normal situation. He already seemed to be traumatized when he was only 9. Now, at age 26, he is several blocks over from "free."
Luckily, Chiron is not a real person. He's a fictional character, and he's being put to good use with our liberal tribe.
Quickly, let's explain:
There was a time when the liberal world officially cared about black kids. When Jonathan Kozol wrote Death at an Early Age, the liberal world was eager to hear about children who were eight years old and were, through no fault of their own, "tiny, desperate, unwell."
That was 1967. Within a decade or two, we liberals came to see that it wouldn't be supremely easy to deal with the punishing deficits our brutal American history had visited upon kids like Kozol's Stephen or Barry Jenkins' Chiron.
It wouldn't be easy to straighten this out! We abandoned low-income black kids at that time, and we've never looked back.
(One exception: When a black kid gets shot and killed, we invent phony facts, or hide real facts, to make the tragic event in question seem more outrageous than it actually was. In this way, we prove to ourselves that we aren't the people we actually are.)
For years and years, we've discussed the contempt our mainstream and liberal worlds hold for kids like the 9-year-old Chiron. Long ago, we stopped discussing the circumstances such kids face at school. We're so disinterested in kids like Chiron that we won't even tell the world how much better black kids are doing in reading and math than was the case in the 1980s, when Jenkins' film begins.
Black kids are doing much better in school! But we're so full of contempt for such kids that we won't even mention this fact. Rachel would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before she'd agree to mug and clown her way through such a ratings-killing segment.
We don't care about those kids. Nothing could be plainer.
Within liberal orthodoxy, it was once mandatory to care about low-income black kids. Today, our orthodoxies have moved on. Today, we care about kids who are gay or transgender, as of course we should.
Our orthodoxies have moved on. For that reason, when critics looked at Chiron, they saw the one thread, discarded the other. (Stevens: Chiron is conducting a "search for sexual and personal identity.") That said, they were careful to smooth the edges of Chiron's social circumstances, avoiding possible angry claims that they were snarling racists.
We no longer care about kids like the black and poor Chiron; we only care about posturing. We smooth the edges of Chiron's addict mom to keep the R-bombs away from our heads. We act like something "transformative" has happened to Chiron, though he could, with enormous ease, be shot and killed tomorrow.
In the New York Times, we even read that Chiron is "free." Amazingly easy for you to say, double professor white boy!
We found Moonlight very depressing because of the abandonment and abuse we saw being visited on Chiron. To the mainstream liberal critics, the only thing that really matters is the fact that a traumatized boy turned traumatized man has haltingly acknowledged the fact that he is gay.
Thanks to that, he's free!
In our view, Moonlight, a striking film, opens with a 9-year-old boy who's being subjected to massive abandonment and abuse. Things spiral downward from there.
We found the portrait very depressing. When we came home and read the reviews, we were surprised to see that no one else did.
Still to come at some point: Radical chic and Scott
Time magazine limns Invisible Man: Back in 2010, Time magazine included Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man on a list of the hundred best English-language novels. This was Lev Grossman's capsule:
GROSSMAN (1/7/10): A nameless young black man wends a tortuous path from a southern town—where a local white men’s club mockingly awards him a scholarship to a black college—to the streets of New York City, where everybody, black and white, left and right, man and woman, seems to have their own ideas about who he is and what purpose he can serve. Evenhandedly exposing the hypocrisies and stereotypes of all comers, Invisible Man is far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.It wasn't a bildungsroman. It was a picaresque!
Regarding Ellison's protagonist, "everybody seems to have their own ideas about who he is and what purpose he can serve." Now that gay is in and poor black is out, gay is all the reviewers could see when they looked at Chiron. He was put in service to our new tribal purpose.
They thought they saw a loving mother. They thought Chiron was free.