Moonlight movie review: the empathy machine in action (but only if you’re watching)

MaryAnn’s quick take: Luminous and plaintive, Moonlight is emotional virtual reality, transforming a unique human experience into something universal and unforgettable.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’ve been trying to think about the best way I could advocate for writer-director Barry Jenkins’s luminous and plaintive Moonlight: this is one of those reviews that I feel very keenly that I must get right. That I must do the film justice. That I must sell it in such a way that I convince everyone reading to see it. Because Moonlight isn’t just a good film. It’s not even “just” a great one. It’s perfect in a way that too few films are.

Movies like this are as scarce as water in a desert, and as welcome…

I don’t mean that it’s perfect in a technical way, though it’s certainly true that, say, Nicholas Britell’s score is aching and gentle, and that James Laxton’s (Camp X-Ray) cinematography is beautiful. No, I mean that Moonlight is perfect in one of the ways that I appreciate movies most: it puts you right inside a character so that you are irresistibly drawn into his life, that you feel everything he feels and understand almost instinctively who he is. His story is very specific and narrowly focused: this is about a young boy growing into a young man in a rough Miami neighborhood between the 1990s and today. He is black, he is poor, and he is gay. There are only a small, finite number of people who might watch this movie who could honestly say, “Gee, he’s just like me.” And yet Moonlight makes his experience feel universal and unforgettable, like his story is your story. And I suppose it is able to do that because of how effortlessly it immerses us into his life. It’s almost like an emotional virtual reality: while you are sitting in the cinema, you are him.

Moonlight Trevante Rhodes
Newsflash: This gay black man is a human being with dignity and worth and a complicated life.

There is a mystery and a magic in how writer-director Jenkins, with his second feature, actually achieves that incredible feat. I couldn’t tell you how he did it; it’s cinematic alchemy of a rare order, and perhaps even Jenkins couldn’t tell you how he did it. (Jenkins’s first film was 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, which I have not seen, but with a marvelous title like that — which could also almost serve as a title for this movie — I must check it out.) But it is extraordinary to behold. Movies like this are as scarce as water in a desert, and as welcome, and this one comes in an especially parched desert: the realm of movies that are not about straight white men. For a movie to so beautifully capture a human life in all its longings and its pain, all its contradictions and its secrets, all its flaws and failures, all its loves and losses… and for such a movie to be about a gay black man? I wept with the enrapturing emotional joy, the wonderful surprise of it. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a black person watching Moonlight, or a black man, or a black gay man, and see the gorgeous complicated unquestioned humanity on display.

An immaculate example of something Roger Ebert once said about movies, that they are machines for creating empathy.

This is not a film “for” black people: it’s a film “for” everyone. Absolutely everyone. Moonlight is an immaculate example of something Roger Ebert once said about movies, that they are machines for creating empathy. This is what Moonlight is: a machine for creating empathy for a protagonist who will, for most people who see the film, be very removed from their own lives and their own experiences. Why would you not want to experience what life is like for other people? And this movie strips away any distance. From the moment we meet “Little” (Alex Hibbert), as the protagonist is dubbed as a painfully shy and quiet gradeschooler by Juan (Mahershala Ali: Free State of Jones, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2), who becomes something of a father figure to him, we become implicated in the boy’s unspoken need to figure out who he is and what his place in the world is. We become complicit in his relationships with his verbally abusive and emotionally neglectful addict mother (Naomie Harris: Our Kind of Traitor, Spectre) and with Juan and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monáe: Rio 2), who struggle, out of true love and tenderness, to reach the boy under the protective shell and nurture him in ways that he does not get at home. Later, we experience similar immersions in the awkwardness of teendom, via Chiron (Ashton Sanders: Straight Outta Compton, The Retrieval) — this appears to be the name “Little”’s mother actually gave him — and then young man “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), perhaps so-called because now, the color of his skin is the only thing the larger world sees in him. The film is structured as three chapters in his life, and each section winnows its perspective down until Black’s chapter takes place over only just one evening, as he attempts a reconnection with an old acquaintance. The note of aching hope the film ends on is shattering in its simple yet devastatingly profound generosity and decency.

Little/Chiron/Black is not the sort of character movies get made about, and we need many, many more of them.

But. But.

I had already been thinking about using that Ebert quote to describe Moonlight when my fellow film critic Robbie Collin of the London newspaper The Telegraph tweeted this in the wake of the election of the apparently empathy-free Donald Trump, by an apparently empathy-free electorate, to the White House:

Roger Ebert called the movies a machine that generates empathy. So while cinema feels trivial right now, in fact it matters more than ever.

— Robbie Collin (@robbiereviews) November 9, 2016

Collin isn’t wrong about this. If anything is going to get thinking, sensitive folk like us through the next four to eight years, it is going to be art: movies, music, Banksy graffiti, comic books, whatever. But still, I tweeted back:

Moonlight Mahershala Ali
Juan teaches Little how to swim. Bring Kleenex.

As refreshing as a movie like Moonlight is, as much as we abso-fucking-lutely need to see people of all colors and genders and orientations and goldang preferences in ice-cream flavors represented onscreen, I did not previously doubt that gay black men are people. (Make no mistake, though: I still needed to see this.) People who do not think that gay black men are also people are unlikely to check out Moonlight. Entertainment today, like so much of the rest of our public discourse, is stuck in its own echo chamber. Only liberals go see Michael Moore documentaries; no one who thinks black people or gay people or poor people are second-class citizens, or worse, will make a special trip to the cinema and pony up for a ticket to see Moonlight, and they’re the ones who actually need to see it.

I don’t know how we fix that. But if there exists today any way to put human beings in the shoes of other human beings in a Freaky Friday sort of way, it’s movies like Moonlight. Maybe we need to organize a campaign to (temporarily) adopt Trump (and, once this opens in the UK, Brexit Leave) voters, tell them we’re off to see a new Liam Neeson action thriller, and force them to sit through Moonlight instead?

viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival

Oscars Best Picture 2016

previous Best Picture:
2015: Spotlight
next Best Picture:
2017: The Shape of Water

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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