After the delightful furore at the Oscars that saw La La Land‘s seemingly all white (and mostly male) entourage plough through their speeches for Best Picture only to be spectacularly replaced by Moonlight‘s nearly all black (and mostly male) contingent, it was with great interest that I sat down to watch this film. With Mahershala Ali being feted as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar and Moonlight as the first LGBT movie to win Best Picture, I was expecting a film that would challenge white, conservative, heteronormative ideas. While Moonlight is a decent and worthy movie (if only for its all black cast), it was rather coy in its tackling of LGBT issues and Ali’s nomination, for what is a fairly small part compared to the substantial performances of the much lesser known Trevante Rhodes (Black) and Ashton Sanders (Chiron), says something, I think, about the benign paternalism of the Oscars.
Shot on a minuscule (for Hollywood) budget in one of the poorest areas of Miami, the story follows Chiron (called Little) in three stages of his life: as a child, a teenager and an adult. Painfully shy and relentlessly bullied, as a child he is found by Juan (Ali) who befriends him when he realises Little is being neglected by his drug-addicted mother. Juan is a drug dealer and on the streets is full of masculine bravado while at home, with his partner Theresa, he has the wisdom and sensitivity to recognise Little’s vulnerability. It is later, when we see the man Little becomes, that we understand Juan’s empathy perhaps comes from experiencing the same childhood.
Little is told by his friend Kevin to stand up for himself against the other boys who have learned early that the way to survive is through violence. We cut then to Chiron’s adolescence and it’s apparent that he is unable to play the game. Although he rarely speaks, Chiron seems crippled by his inability to find his way in the life he has been given. There seems to be only one choice and no one to protect him from the relentlessness of poverty and toxic masculinity.
In the third act we see Chiron, or Black as he calls himself, as an adult and the path he has followed. Juan’s role as mentor is fleeting and it is Chiron’s harmful relationship with his mother and tumultuous connection with his friend Kevin that frame his journey.
The film’s low budget shows in the low quality camera resolution but this is only occasionally jarring and (what is presumably) a small camera allows for greater intimacy, movement and naturalism. As for being an LGBT film, it kind of is but it is evasive about it in a way that would never be seen in a hetero film. It means there is little LGBT agency or voice amidst the hetero-masculine overload.
Disappointing too are the marginalised female roles – Chiron’s mother and Theresa are the only ones with voices and I couldn’t help feeling they were playing out the stereotypes of neglectful versus nurturing mother. It felt like the blame for Chiron’s difficult life, and inability to know and show who he is, is dropped deliberately into the lap of his mother. Not because of poverty nor homophobia but lack of love at a critical time.
Overall, it’s a worthwhile film and of the best picture nominees that I have seen – La La Land, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures and Lion – it is the only one to give agency to black experiences without mediating them through white paternalism.
Bechdel test – fail