By Matt SandlerDecember 16, 2016
Generalizing about the audience’s expectations is difficult for me, however, because I come to the movie with a specific set of complex investments. I grew up in Miami, about 15 minutes by car — and worlds away in terms of what we now pointedly but clumsily call privilege — from the neighborhoods Moonlight depicts. I am more or less exactly the same age as the filmmakers and their characters, and I know the history of the place rather well, not least because I went on to study and teach African-American culture at the university level. One simple way to put my response is to say that I have been waiting for this movie without knowing it was coming. I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. Moonlight makes a swerve on the broad and compulsively historical clichés that usually frame American filmmaking about Black people by being more historical, by looking so closely that a new kind of filmic history emerges. Hilton Als notes in his lovely review that the film resists Hollywood’s tendency to what he calls “Negro hyperbole.” Indeed, Moonlight’s sublimity (and it is sublime) depends on the specificity of its setting in a city at once typical of US race relations in the age of neoliberalism and particular as a site of transnational, African diasporic, and queer utopian dreaming.
Jenkins’s last film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), focuses on a straight couple that meets in gentrifying San Francisco. In a smart chapter about that film in his recent book Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016), Michael Boyce Gillespie suggests that it frames its romantic narrative with the “shifting racial and cultural textures” of the city. Medicine for Melancholy features a good deal of expository dialogue that locates its characters in contemporary history and along the aspirational margin between bohemia and the middle class. Moonlight (based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) also works through a sensitive localism, but its characters are less vocal. In terms of the production design, Jenkins barely allows the details of the setting into the corners of the frame; sometimes Miami seems to hover just off screen, off center.
The first act of Moonlight includes some details that fix the period, especially in the lifestyle of Mahershala Ali’s character — his beeper, folded up in a shirt at the beach, for instance, or the crown air freshener on his car’s dashboard. Press for the film has also noted that Jenkins filmed in the Liberty Square apartment complex, a New Deal–era Public Works Administration housing project. These choices give the film a historical ambiance without making the narrative didactic. At the risk of disenchanting the considerable aesthetic effect of this approach, I want to draw a couple of historical connections here to supplement what I take to be the extraordinary historical suppleness of Moonlight. N. D. B. Connolly’s history A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (2014), for instance, offers a densely researched account of the spatial history of the city and tells of how city planners and landlords conspired to cordon off neighborhoods like Jenkins’s Liberty City. Connolly points out the ways in which Miami is representative of other Sun Belt cities, with a local politics centered on property ownership and racism.
The people living in Black Miami’s neglected public housing projects and schools occasionally reacted to this politics in dramatic ways. One of the most significant race riots in the late 20th century took place in Miami in the spring of 1980, around the time the narrative of Moonlight begins. The uprising was a response to the extrajudicial murder by Miami police of a Black middle-class military veteran named Arthur McDuffie, and it is consistently mentioned in histories of the effects of the neoliberalism on African-American communities. Manning Marable writes of what he calls “The Miami Rebellion”:
Economically, it was by far the most devastating social uprising in American history. Overall damage estimates varied between $50 and $100 million dollars. Counting the lost work hours and cutbacks in the tourist trade, Miami’s gross fiscal losses probably will exceed $250 million. 3,000 jobs were permanently destroyed, and another 3,000 jobs will be temporarily lost. 400 persons were injured, many seriously. Over 1,250 people were arrested during five days, almost all of them were black men. White and black liberals were shocked and even bewildered by the rebellious rage that came from the depths of the black community.
These events would have haunted the early 1980s of Jenkins’s film and especially the childhood of his main character, Chiron. I submit that the sovereignty of his quietude, to borrow a term from critic Kevin Quashie, derives not only from the impoverished circumstances of his upbringing, but also from this moment of political outcry.
Chiron’s coming of age takes place within a narrative that makes important revisions to the traditions of the gangster movie and drug movie. Here again, its setting plays an important supporting role. Miami has a long and checkered history in such movies: the operatic silliness of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) and the camp gloss of Michael Mann’s series Miami Vice (1984–1990) left a deep imprint. The films from the 1990s about African-American young people and gang culture with which Moonlight is in conversation (especially Boyz n the Hood  and Juice ) focus on New York and Los Angeles as paradigmatically Black post-industrial “inner cities.” Miami, by contrast, has always been represented as an entrepôt, especially in movies about the heyday of the so-called cocaine cowboys.
Connolly shows how the presence of Cuban, Haitian, and other immigrant communities complicated residential segregation in Miami. The film sometimes represents the diaspora as a site of ecstatic racial communion a little too easily. Two of the film’s most important moments make this connection — Juan’s gorgeous monologue at the beach before he gives Chiron a kind of Atlantic baptism and the scene at Jimmy’s Restaurant at the close of the film. In both instances, Cubanness appears poetically, but a bit unrealistically, as a kind of escape from the effects of American anti-Black racism. Between these two scenes, the script subtly hints at tension between African-American and Cuban young people — Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is prompted by the menacing bully Terrel (Patrick Decile) to beat Chiron by recalling a time they beat up a Cuban kid.
Across national media representations of the 1980s and ’90s, Latin-American and Caribbean immigrant groups in Miami were just as often treated with suspicion and racism, often contributing to a sense of the place as a kind of American Third World. In a scathing review of Joan Didion’s disappointing book Miami (1987), Edward Said writes that she “draws a portrait of Miami as a place — unlike Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran or Nicaragua — from which the US cannot withdraw.” It’s easy now to forget, in the years since the height of the drug wars, that this was once a credible mainstream way of thinking about Miami’s internationalism. The world depicted in Moonlight is nevertheless that of an internal colony, abandoned by the state’s supposed benevolence, and stuck serving its ends through suffering.
Local historian Marvin Dunn starts his book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (1997) with the axiom: “There are many shades of black in Miami,” and Jenkins’s small film remarkably proves this point. Yet Moonlight’s focus on a kind of Black world means the film is carefully removed from the Miami that became a fashion capital during the period of its narrative. Like other historical details, the city’s transformation into an international port of call for gay culture takes place just beyond the frame of its narrative. Nevertheless, without rendering the caricatures of South Beach gay life one finds in The Birdcage (1996) or reminiscences about Gianni Versace’s mansion, the second half of Moonlight associates queer sexual pleasure with the beach. Chiron’s first sexual experiment with Kevin takes place there, and it appears that Kevin’s apartment in the final scenes is on the beach. Ocean waves crash around some of the more dramatic and sexy moments in the film’s characters’ development.
The threats against this pleasure are not just the insulated homophobia of Chiron’s immediate community. At another moment in the film, a teacher hints pleadingly about the looming threat of the AIDS epidemic in a high school lecture about the importance of “white blood cells”: “You guys need to know this more than I do.” Here, as well, Jenkins carefully sidesteps Hollywood stereotype and displaces conventional depictions of gay life through the luxury iconography of Miami. One finds none of the shots of cruise ships, art deco architecture, and neon nightlife that have defined the city and its apparently surplus sexuality.
The emergence of queer-of-color critique in academic writing of the past decade or so offers some insight into the way Moonlight represents the pressures on African-American masculinity more generally and the idiosyncrasies of Southern Black male queerness in particular. In Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (2014), C. Riley Snorton argues that “down-low narratives” are often associated with criminality, because they “air anxieties about the possibility of refusing to comply with sexual identifications.” Chiron is not technically “on the down low,” but the narrative does weave his long durational experience of the closet with his experience of the criminalization of Black life. Driving back down to Miami in third act of the film, with his “BLACK305” license plate rolling past sawgrass along the Florida Turnpike, Chiron makes a quest of desire in defiance of received ideas about his sexuality.
The consolation we take in the closing frame of Chiron and Kevin is hardly definitive. Chiron is still, and perhaps more than ever, a fugitive from the law, and Kevin is on probation. Their intimacy finds shelter in a cozy apartment, and I hope Chiron stays there, dropping comfortably into a groove of pink sunsets and palm trees. In more hopeful moments, I’ve been tempted to wonder if Chiron could have followed Miami’s own trajectory from narco-city-state to destination for the international art world. Could he find his way into some South Beach bohemia and scrape a beautiful life off the top of all that tourist money? Or is there something more melancholic in that sound of crashing waves, as we become increasingly certain of the incipient disappearance of Miami beneath the seas?
Moonlight is, in any case, an indelible work of cinematic art, and in ways that will long outlive the conversation about diversity at the Oscars. It arrives at a moment of retrenchment for white American hetero-patriarchy, for which whatever recognition it receives in the coming months can hardly compensate. Longer term, I think it should prompt urgent meditations about how Hollywood has long profited off the circulation of distorted visions of Black criminality. Moonlight is such a gorgeous miniature of a film, leaving us to wonder what its attitudes (toward Blackness, toward masculinity, and toward sexuality) might look like played out in larger worlds, fictional and real.
Matt Sandler works at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University and is writing a book about Black Romantic poets in the Civil War era. He tweets a little diffidently @mfsandler
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