In mid-February, I received an e-mail from a friend, Gregory Ford, under the subject-line “Moonlight.” “I haven’t seen your thoughts and reactions to this phenomenon,” he wrote.
Ford is an actor, singer, and director. I was surprised he even would be interested in anything I had to say about the movie, given that one of his tasks is to critique plays eligible to be nominated for the annual Helen Hayes Awards. Later that day I wrote this to him:
“Phenomenon indeed. In addition to the movie being gratifying on so many levels, it is so gratifying to witness its reception. I can’t imagine what I could say about the movie itself to a critical viewer like you that would cause you to ponder, so I’ll tell you about something brought back from the depths of memory while I watched.
“What the movie made me remember is a story of machismo thwarted by compassion, all taking place one morning on the floor of a junior high school gymnasium. That school quarter, Physical Ed for 7th-graders included dance — not ballet or modern or jazz. We were learning how people danced in colonial times; from there we moved on to square dancing, then on to social dancing – waltzing and ballroom dancing and the kind of polite dancing we saw people doing at formal affairs in the movies and on television. The 7th grade homerooms were combined for this. Our reward at the end of that quarter was what we considered to be a “real” dance where we would get to play the records we played at home and dance the way we wanted.
“My memory of that day is what happened after the last dance. I don’t remember the record. I just remember I was dancing with Deidre, a dream deferred since elementary school — and I do mean deferred; I’d given up on any hope of her since 3rd grade. I remember the time our fourth-grade teacher turned to us seated side-by-side and asked if we were brother and sister; we both had a similar birthmark faintly visible just below the same eye. We were in different homerooms in 7th grade and I didn’t see her as much, so when the final record started playing I asked her to dance. I had no idea this would be viewed by some onlookers as a transgression.
“Two of those onlookers, Anthony and Nathan, watched the dancers from the bleachers; the gym teacher had made them sit there rather than participate because of some transgression of their own. Anthony watched his girlfriend, Theresa, dance with a boy named Julius; Nathan watched Diedre dance with me. They were not pleased.
“Why would I think Nathan would be mad at me – me, of all people? Nathan had been in the same class in 3rd grade and every other grade right along with me and Deidre. Nathan had given me the nickname I was called by close friends; he knew I had no designs on Deidre, whose attention he had won long before. Does any of this matter when pubescent peer pressure is involved?
“As it turned out, if Anthony and Nathan couldn’t dance with their girls, no one was supposed to. The fact that two had was a problem. More than anything, rather than a problem based on anger it was a problem of saving face. Both Anthony and Nathan had reputations to maintain, and to let this public humiliation pass without some sort of retribution would have been taken as a sign their pecking order might be wrong.
“So, as students and staff began to leave the gym, a group of boys were gathered at one end, Anthony and Nathan and Julius and I at the center of it. Anthony hit Julius, who did not hit him back. I had no aversion to fighting; my oldest brother had taught me to box years earlier. He and my second-oldest brother used that to their advantage, always coming to get me to fight any boy my age or size whom they had decided deserved to be pummeled. But, I didn’t worry about Nathan hitting me because I knew he wasn’t mad. He punched me in the chest. I don’t know if I’d ever heard or paid attention to the now-overused word ‘surreal’ at that time, but understanding its meaning now is the only way I can describe my reaction to the unbelievable fact that Nathan had hit me. Incredulity was brief, and the realization that he of all people had hit me felt like a huge betrayal that suddenly turned into immense grief. I burst into tears on the spot.
“How am I able to write those words and not feel any pangs of shame? It is because I felt none at the time. I didn’t have a chance because of the very next thing Nathan did. After having just demonstrated what was expected of him one moment, he threw it all away the next. Nathan — in front of everyone – grabbed me and hugged me, apologizing and asking for forgiveness. His efforts to soothe me continued when we left the gym. He walked me all the way to my next class with his arm around my shoulder, continuing to console me.
“Now, I know I might be fooling myself. Nathan could have been doing no more than covering his ass. Maybe he thought if someone saw a crying kid he might be in more trouble than whatever had put him on the bleachers. But just as he knew I wasn’t trying to make a move on Deidre, just as he knew I had no interest in fighting him, he knew I wasn’t a snitch. I like to think he was just as sensitive to what he had done as I. Whatever the case, the boys in the gym after the dance learned a lesson they didn’t expect.
“Probably one of the best pieces written about the movie was Scott’s review last year in the NYT – also gratifying. What stood out to me were two passages. Speaking of Jenkins, he wrote ‘He does not generalize. He empathizes. Every moment is infused with what the poet Hart Crane called infinite consanguinity, the mysterious bond that links us with one another and that only an alert and sensitive artistic imagination can make visible.’ The other passage was ‘To insist that stories about poor, oppressed or otherwise marginal groups of people are really about everyone can be a way of denying their specificity. The universe is far too granular and far too vast for any one of us to comprehend, and Mr. Jenkins is far too disciplined a filmmaker to turn his characters into symbols.’ That review was titled ‘Moonlight: Is This the Year’s Best Movie?’ Hell yeah!”
Here is how Ford responded (but anyone who has not seen the movie and is planning to should take fair warning):
“Thank you so much for this. There are so many negative Facebook comments: heterosexual males and females feeling they were ‘tricked’ into seeing this movie (if a story is going to include homosexuality as a point of empathy, they should be warned so they can decide whether they want to see it); Christians dismissing the sin of homosexuality as a suitable subject; displeasure with seeing yet another movie about drug dealers, addicts and poverty. It was a surprise to me the depth, virulence, vehemence and frequency of these views. Why I should have spent so much time reading them is another question. I am through now.
“Barry Jenkins has mentioned that a colleague of his noted that his technique of directing the sequence where Chiron pursues his mother across the courtyard and she turns and talks to him — and she talks directly into the camera – was like psychodrama (role reversal). It feels like this work is an exercise in transformation that the viewer cannot avoid or remain passive about.
“Some favorite moments in which we audience members are put in confrontation with ourselves:
1. Chiron’s mother yelling at him in the hallway of her home when no sound comes out of her body but the color around her shimmers. This is a set up for when he has a flashback of this scene and the voice is heard intruding on his present experience.
2. Chiron’s wet dream. We are occupied with watching Kevin lounge against the outside wall smoking a cigarette and mugging for the camera – for us. The next thing we see, Chiron has ejaculated — thus fusing our thoughts and feelings (which up until that point were private thoughts of an audience member assessing an actor’s attractiveness) with those of Chiron so that we become co-conspirators in this moment.
3. The moment in the third chapter when Kevin recognizes Chiron and we (Chiron?) hear Kevin call out Chiron’s name but his lips don’t move so we hear/ feel Kevin’s voice inside our heads.
“It’s a special movie. It would truly be whipped cream on top if it won the Oscar for best picture. I think that “Lion” may win it. This will allow the academy to still pat itself on the back for having demonstrated its openness to diversity without giving it to the Black guy and at the same time avoid the criticism from a sizeable Black audience about only emasculating images of Black men being approved by Hollywood. It will also avoid the embarrassment of honoring a technically complicated but utterly bland “La La Land”. And, it will be just like how Donald Trump won the Presidency: no one was seriously considering him.”