I first saw Moonlight (2016) the day it was released for home viewing. My first impression was that it was not nearly as good or as new as many had suggested, and I shared a few thoughts related to this on my personal, private Facebook page:
My thoughts were generally meet with hostility, which puzzled me since we all have different opinions, I did not say anything definitive, and the film covers areas in which I am an “expert” (Blackness, Queerness, film history, U.S. History, etc.).
People commented that it was only for Black people to praise or criticize the film, that the film was new and raw, and that I was the first person to criticize the film.
This lead me to realize that “thinking” in the form of writing is frowned upon and even alien. Written thinking (not “written thought” because “thinking” emphasizes in-progress) is taken much more seriously, potentially, and not allowed the same flexibility as an in-person conversation. No one replied, for instance, asking for clarification or trying to understand what troubled me about the film. In an era of social media and computers, it is vital that we all–including me–grow accustomed to seeing and accepting written thinking as just that–thinking–and not necessarily something that has been fully thought through or that is “final” in any way.
I wrote a follow-up post that said:
Likewise, people are typically too ready to criticize any criticisms of what is generally regarded as popular and important. As I have written about before, when something is really popular and really enjoyed and really praised, it needs even more critical attention.
So, I recently rewatched Moonlight. The first time, based on trailers, other previews, and reviews, I expected something of a developed love story between two Queer Black men. Because I knew what to expect, I definitely enjoyed it more, but overall, I still find that Moonlight is not as great and as revolutionary or as exciting, as generally held.
Moonlight deserves praise, certainly, for daring to depict the struggles of and transgressions of Black masculinity. Intersectionality matters. The Black masculinity spotlighted is one that is unable to and one that resists popular mores about the proper role of men, to a large extent. We see a bond develop between a Black child and a Black adult (a father-like figure). Moonlight does not (directly) include any White people. Moonlight does not (directly) include any rich people. Moonlight does not even include any happy people. Moonlight does not center around a heterosexual love story. In these ways, Moonlight breaks all of the “rules” of successful movies. And that is noteworthy.
(For an academic perspective on some of these issues, see “Straight Black Queer: Obama, Code-Switching, and the Gender Anxiety of African American Men.”)
I also recognize that the film has spoken to many people–especially many but not all Queer Folks and/or Peoples of Color–in ways that mainstream Hollywood films simply do not and cannot.
On the other hand, Moonlight is first and foremost a movie about communities and peoples addicted to drugs and/or dependent on money from selling drugs for basic survival because of White Supremacy, capitalism, and similar forces. We have had so many films tell this same basic story. Super Fly (1972) comes to mind. As bell hooks has said, “we” need positive filmic representations of Blackness.
Moonlight also shows a Blackness that is violent, physically and psychologically. Black men are violent toward Black women. Black women are violent toward their children. Black children are violent toward other Black children.
Why does film constantly create links between Black people and between violence, drugs, and underground economies? Such links are unconsciously wired into our brains as representations of reality and these have extremely negative consequences when it comes to voting–just read about cognitive neuroscience.
Additionally, on a much less serious note, Moonlight is slow-paced and lacks any kind of
“excitement.” I was planning to use almost three hours of class time to show it and discuss it with my Queer Studies students, but I know from experience that at least half of them would fall asleep. I had some trouble staying awake both times I watched it, and I never fall asleep watching a movie. Although, in its own way, its slow pace does make Moonlight unique. Hollywood and White people generally expect everything to be go-go-go and we’re trained to never relax. Enter: Dr. Brittany Cooper’s excellent thoughts about the racialization of time.
To me, it also felt like that the first two actors playing Chiron never really got into their character. I can’t put my finger on it just yet, but when they spoke or did something, it didn’t seem to align with anything else. The other actors were fully believable.
But, regardless of my thoughts, which are still in progress and will certainly keep evolving, that Moonlight won Best Picture is significant, and hopefully it will open the door for other films that “break the rules.” But we need to be careful, a backlash is always possible and historically speaking, more than possible.
Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda