Moonlight deserved the Oscar for Best Picture, not only for the mind-blowing cinematography by James Laxton, but also for its crucial lesson. The film ignites a dialogue regarding the age-old perceptions of black men. Many great films showing the black-male narrative such as ‘Menace II society’ by Allen and Albert Hughes and British film ‘Kidulthood’ follow a strict format of showing the strong ‘hustling’ black man with a few moments of vulnerability. The problem with this structure is the polarization of the black man’s experience. The structure suggests that black men are somewhat one-dimensional at any one given time.
Moonlight disputes this; it shows us that it is not every day the black man is either strong, or fighting or crying. Some days the black man is just being.
Moonlight showed many powerful scenes of black men just being. Amongst these, is the baptism-like scene in which Juan (Mahershala Ali) holds 12-year old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) over the water; they are black men being.
The reason Moonlight is such a success is because that essence of the black man being works to heighten the instances of the black man hurting or indeed fighting. Through the contrast of stillness in the water scene against the chaos in many of the prior and following scenes, director Barry Jenkins humanizes the struggle of the black man in a way that other films just do not. He shows a moment in which the black man does not exist either here nor there but perfectly and wholly in between.
The film speaks volumes over anything that words could say. The noticeable lack of dialogue makes the actor’s emotions so much more raw and hard hitting. For example, in the moment when a young Chiron asks his father-figure Juan whether his mother is on drugs and then follows up with asking him if he sells drugs, Juan’s inability to look the 12-year-old in the eye is heart breaking. Another moment where Jenkins highlights the multi-dimensionality of the black man. In showing shame in the Juan’s eyes when being faced with the disappointment of a child Jenkins shows that the black man is often living a life that is pragmatic rather than preferred. Meaning, black men live their lives solving problems through means deemed sensible that suit the conditions that really exist now.
The film’s catapult into mainstream has come not long after the suicide by 8-year-old black boy Gabriel Taye who took his own life allegedly because of bullying at school. Such a sensitive and catastrophic occurrence only further highlights the need for black boys and men to be given the space to be and the space to cry. No 8-year-old boy from any race should ever reach the tragic desperation of Gabriel Taye.
According to the NY times in 2015 the suicide rate of black children within ages 5 and 11 had doubled between 1993 and 2013 — while the rate among white children had declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys in particular. This is the problem of polarizing. If you take anything from Moonlight it is to learn that black men too cry, even at times of strength. We need to cut this narrative of the hard black man who is strong as knives and deals with his emotions through anger alone. Yes, black men are strong, they have to be in the current state we live in. But that is not all a black man is and the sooner we learn this the sooner we stop putting black men into a box and the sooner we learn to let the black man be.