Moonlight is a rare film, harnessing critical acclaim and popular attention while challenging its audience to face a complex reality. Based on playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s own story, Director Barry Jenkins immerses us in the life of Chiron, a poor, black, gay man, as he struggles to claim his identity in an unforgiving place.
As the Executive Director of an organization focused on faith, gender, and sexuality, I know there are many great “gay” films, but there are far fewer great films that approach gender and sexuality with the nuance and vulnerability that give us the sense we are witnessing something spiritual. Pariah, Tangerine, and Boys Don’t Cry are some of those few.
This is where Moonlight finds its home. It invites us to attest to the turbulent and uncertain survival of Chiron’s spirit. My hope is that religious and non-religious audiences alike will have eyes to see the spirit of this film.
If we’re tempted to look away, it’s because this film reveals what we have intentionally neglected: stories like Chiron’s exist, and they tear apart our neat little categories.
I recently had a conversation with the playwright about the film’s theme of identity. Tarell told me, “All of us are being asked to sort of fall into these slots. We’re asked to fall into these very mundane and authoritative and oppressive holders.” These identity holders— male, female, black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor— teach us to perform. Women should look a certain way; men should act a certain way.
“I hope,” Tarell told me, “that what the movie does is throw an iris onto how those performances can suppress and sometimes diminish the brightness of the individual.”
We talked about how Moonlight heeds the ancient maxim, “know thyself,” as a crucial step in the spiritual quest. “The film is about taking ownership; of one man being able to name himself.” Even throughout the entirety of the original script, “if Chiron was a teenager he was being called Chiron. If he was a kid, he was being called Little. If he was grown, he was being called Black.” This struggle to name ourselves is constantly evolving as we attempt to navigate and claim our space in the world.
Tarell noted that being able to say, ‘This is who I am in the world!’, is often denied to most of us. Yet wherever you go in the world, “people are longing to do that.” Then, as he did several times during our conversation, he was sure to remind me that he has more questions than answers.
And Moonlight is a film that patiently resists easy answers to questions like this. Instead it reveals common human experiences through an open ended journey. As viewers, we leave the film desperate for resolve but with a prospect of hope. Both Chiron as a character and Tarell as the playwright embody this tension between answers and questions. Both are on a quest for identity while shedding other people’s expectations of them.
Often, the temptation of the spiritual quest is to do the opposite. We assume spirituality is in finding answers and meeting expectations. “We keep telling people if they go to Bishop so and so, they will help you find your way. And if you turn to this piece of scripture, it will help you find your way.” “Actually,” Tarell said, “the scripture is there to help you figure it out within yourself. It’s to help, hopefully, resonate something inside of you that will start ringing and then make itself true to you.”
So much of our conversation, and my experience of watching Moonlight, was about letting go of answers, expectations, and guides. Tarell recalled a conversation with his 70-year-old grandfather, a clear inspiration for the words of Chiron’s flawed mentor Juan:
“You know you don’t have to know everything right now. Everything isn’t revealed to me either. But don’t let anybody else come between you and your search, your spiritual quest. Because they can’t figure it out for you.”
How we engage the complexity of Chiron’s story can transcend what it says about Chiron, or about the black identity, or the gay identity. According to Tarell, “That’s what art does, it holds up a mirror for that split second where you thought you weren’t being seen or where you didn’t exactly investigate.”
Which boxes are you still unwilling to break open? Which lines do you draw to navigate our complex world? What parts of your own identity are you suppressing in order to survive?
The film becomes a journey where we investigate the divine as we witness Chiron shed the expectations of the oppressive world around him. If people of faith were courageous enough to embrace this film, we would find, like Tarell himself does, that there is a lot of investigating left to do.
Tarell ended our conversation by saying the most important statement the film can make is that when we watch people hemmed in for who they are trying to become, simply because they don’t conform or fit into what we think they should be, we all lose.
To read the entirety of my conversation with Tarell Alvin McCraney, click here.