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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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

Moonlight green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Luminous and plaintive, Moonlight is emotional virtual reality, transforming a unique human experience into something universal and unforgettable.tweet
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 plaintivetweet 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.tweet

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,tweet 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 humanitytweet 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.tweet

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:

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.tweet

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: ????

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

green light 5 stars

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Moonlight (2016) | directed by Barry Jenkins
US/Can release: Oct 21 2016
UK/Ire release: Feb 10 2017

MPAA: rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex, sex references, drugs misuse)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • CParis

    Moonlight is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Wonderful, thought-provoking, mesmerizing storytelling.

  • Bluejay

    Moonlight is everything you say it is. To recommend it to my friends as “wonderful” or “great” or “thought-provoking” seems like diminishing it somehow, because it is those things but it is more than those things. I’m probably seeing most of the blockbuster films this year, from Doctor Strange to Fantastic Beasts to Moana to Rogue One, but I have a feeling that Moonlight is the one I’ll be most grateful to have seen.

    You’ll probably get some idiotic comment asking “Why can’t you just review the movie? Why do you need to bring your politics into it?” But as you’ve rightly said, movies ARE political — because now everything is, and has to be. Much has been said about how we need to have more empathy for the white working class voter — but while that may be true, make no mistake: Trump’s vicious campaign was built on a lack of empathy for anyone non-white, non-straight, and non-male, an obscene refusal to see them as people. And so any film or other art form that calls for empathy is necessarily a political statement, a light against the coming darkness.

  • Bluejay

    I swear I didn’t read your comment before posting mine, and didn’t realize I’d quoted a couple of your adjectives. I in no way intended to be disparaging. :-)

  • CParis

    No worries! The audience I saw the film with was quite mixed age and ethnicity- all seemed quite moved by the film, many of us, even strangers struck up conversation exiting the theater.
    I saw Moonlight pre-election, so the vibe might be different now…

  • RogerBW

    The first step to fixing bubbles is probably to burn down Facebook. If that’s your primary news source, you will simply never hear things that will challenge your worldview.

  • Well, the bubbles have existed at least since the arrival of Fox News, which long predates Facebook. FB does make it worse… but the bubbles are just a symptom of an overall lack of curiosity and intellectualism in the US (and, increasingly, the UK).

  • RogerBW

    Yes, it’s not the only problem – I first noticed bubbling when LJ started to get popular and people stopped being able to have civilised disagreements – but Facebook is big enough that people can have their entire online lives on it and never meet a dissenting voice.

  • Danielm80

    I think it’s the result, in part, of a first-world problem: We have too many sources of information. There are so many forms of video, audio, and social media that we can’t take them all in, and we don’t. It’s both identical to and the polar opposite of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

  • RogerBW

    I read it slightly differently: people want to consume a certain amount of information, and if they can get enough of it from places which agree with them they will generally not go any further afield.

  • Danielm80

    Yes, sorry, I meant to imply that but probably didn’t. But another problem is that, if you’re not part of the community that’s sharing the information, it’s difficult to filter all of it. For example, if I want to get the perspective of a reasonable, intelligent Trump supporter, I have to wade through some of the worst garbage ever produced. The signal-to-noise ratio is so bad I just assume that “reasonable, intelligent Trump supporter” is an oxymoron.

  • Danielm80
  • I saw this and I really liked it. You felt like you really new Chiron just from the moment he was on screen.

  • Lennon

    For what it’s worth, you did a good job advocating for the movie as far as I’m concerned. Your review convinced me to see a movie I hadn’t heard anything about, and I’m so glad it did. Easily one of the top two or three movies I’ve seen this year, and I’m so grateful to have experienced it. Thank you, MaryAnn!

  • My hesitation over seeing this movie has a lot to do with empathy. I don’t want to see this person being beaten up, which I gather from the trailer is something that happens at least once or twice.

  • You’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Saw it today. It wasn’t beatdowns from beginning to end. To anybody else who had this worry, I recommend it.

  • LaSargenta

    Ok, I don’t really know where else to put this but, I am SO glad this won the Oscar.


  • The distraction from the celebration of this film is the worst thing about that snafu.

  • Bluejay

    Yes, let’s talk it up! Here’s a lovely (older) article from Out, featuring interviews with the creators as well as with Trevante Rhodes, the oldest of the actor trio.


  • LaSargenta

    Mr. Rhodes is quoted about the role:

    “It’s an incredible work of art, and it’s about a very, very
    marginalized group of people,” he says. “I’ve had moments with many
    people who come up to me, red in the face, crying, tearing up because
    this is their story. They’ve never seen themselves put into a narrative
    on screen. How am I going to feel that again? I don’t think you can. At
    the core of it all, you just want to do something that makes someone
    else feel OK.”

    That must be an amazing feeling as an artist.

  • LaSargenta

    Any way to bump up this post? Or have a special new one about the 2016 Best Picture?

  • Bluejay

    She has a new tab up for “Oscar Best Picture Winners” with a link to this review. https://www.flickfilosopher.com/oscar-best-picture-winners

  • Bluejay


  • LaSargenta

    The acceptance speech Jenkins had planned (which he didn’t get to say…Thanks Academy!) https://twitter.com/moonlightmov/status/837065953435389953

  • New comments are the best way to do that. And so that’s done.

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