Moonlight’s liquid vision

As the opening credits roll, a Boris Gardiner song plays. ‘Every Nigger is a Star,’ notably sampled a year earlier on ‘Wesley’s Theory,’ the opening track on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Somewhere in the background, we can hear the sound of rushing waves. We’re in Miami. A black man pulls up in his car. He kills the engine and the music cuts out. The sound of children laughing, a dog barking and some women’s distant chatter fills the landscape as the man steps out onto the street.

At the ‘spot’, a teen is involved in an exchange with an elderly man desperately seeking his next fix. This is a poor neighbourhood; our character, Juan, is a drug baron and this a routine drug check – all in all, seemingly unpromising subject matter. Other directors have shot these same scenes in gritty, neo-realist detail as in the so-called ghetto-centric movies of the 90s. But the images here are visually stunning. They take your breath away. The camerawork is fluid, almost liquid, and the camera moves as if searching for a place to rest, from which we can view the events of the film. Is this a new way of seeing?

Moonlight flips the script, lavishing attention and aesthetic style on an overlooked subject matter, imbuing familiar material with all the aesthetic heft of cinema. I cannot easily forget the image of Chiron’s mother drenched in pink light in the first part of the film (which is split into three stages of Chiron’s life, each a distinct portrait). Paula is yelling at her son, in a scene that could have been so much darker and so much grittier, but the choice of this pink light elevates the scene to a surreal place, providing a three-dimensional value to Paula (Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s drug-addicted mother). In the scene, she is aware and frustrated by her son’s burgeoning sexuality and simultaneously dealing with her own struggles with addiction and motherhood.

As cinematographer, James Laxton says, ‘That pink light behind her in that scene and within the film generally helps to express another side of her.’ And later, ‘I think the colour pink can have a lot of associations but I think one of them can be beauty. On set, it rounded out this character in this moment that is very dark and very intense. She’s yelling at her son. But it allowed us to understand that she’s a whole character as well.’ These are the type of portrayals at which Jenkins excels. In Moonlight, the aesthetic has a thematic impact as well.

As the movie progresses we see that all the other characters – all black – are whole and complex too. We see Chiron contending with the feeling that he might be gay, struggling with how to build himself up as a black man. But the film isn’t about blackness or gayness. As Richard Brody says in The New Yorker, Moonlight’s ‘overwhelming mode is specificity’. Jenkins’ is a commitment to explore the actual texture of a life, to conjure a complex and multifaceted image of an identity that is relentlessly fluid, intangible and fragile. Chiron is one man whose many qualities include being black and gay. Richard Brody, again, says: ‘Without ever losing sight of the political phenomena that make Chiron who he is – including racism, homophobia, mass incarceration, governmental neglect, and poverty [...] – Jenkins films them not as issues to be pinned to the screen in search of a rapid and ready response, but as the crystallisation of individual experience in all its impacted pain and ongoing struggle.’

Jenkins never contends that Chiron, as an individual from a marginalised group, is representative of that entire group. That would be, as researcher Tania Canas puts forward, hindering, as it wrongly implies a uniform experience among the marginalised. Jenkins’ is a commitment to explore the actual texture of a life, the lived reality of one black man in America; to looking squarely at the actual conditions rather than escaping into a fantasy. (Is this one thing that sets independent cinema apart from commercial?)

Films about black teenagers, crime and drug dealers can claim a good portion of American cinematic history. Hollywood has always been good at exploiting its audience’s desires and, more relevantly, fears. It’s an industry inherently geared towards capitalist consumption. This is why you should fear the black man, these early films seemingly said, to white viewers. But directors now are increasingly in a position to address an American audience that has been agitating vocally for change. We’ve just seen the film Black Panther break box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing solo-super-hero movie of all time to date. Films that attempt to delve more deeply into any black cultural reality not directly associated with teenagers and crime have a much better chance at being widely distributed than ever before. Have we arrived at a new iteration of Hollywood? Is this the first indication of a paradigm shift in the industry? Why did it take mainstream American cinema so long to show us complex black characters?

But there’s a deeper seam in Moonlight, that is mined through visual symbol rather than narrative or character. I cannot forget the image of Chiron and his friend and would-be lover, Kevin, sitting together on the seashore, bathed in a baleful blue light. So much of the scene’s melancholy is expressed visually; so much of its beauty through the character’s black skin. ‘In moonlight, black boys look blue,’ says Juan, early on in the film. Film colourist Alex Bickel worked hard with Jenkins to create visually arresting images of black skin throughout Moonlight. Jenkins, describing the look of the characters within the location of the film, told TIME that, ‘Cinema is a little over one hundred years old, and a lot of what we do is built around film emulsion. Those things were calibrated for white skin. We’ve always placed powder on skin to dull the light. But my memory of growing up in Miami is this moist, beautiful black skin. So we used oil. I wanted everyone’s skin to have a sheen to reflect my memory.’

Cinematography is important in a film that both features black actors and is made by a black director. In this sense, Moonlight is a film that contains its own commentary, and it makes a case for looking at black people with fresh eyes. The film and television industries have typically prioritised the beautification of white skin on screen, with lighting and colour schemas designed to optimise every nuanced detail of white skin and white performance. This is what Racquel Gates calls ‘a racialized politics of style,’ Hollywood’s embedded racial ideology. In ‘The Last Shall Be First: Aesthetics and Politics in Black Film and Media,’ she puts forward that the celebration of certain ‘beautiful’ aesthetics (created via lighting, colouring, framing, etc.) can serve to reinforce an established taste politics that has traditionally dictated an aesthetic marginalisation and degradation for people of colour throughout the history of the medium.

She says: ‘film and television have created an aesthetic [...] designed to beautify and humanize whiteness while simultaneously masking the process of beautification and humanization.’ And later that, ‘That aesthetic has become the visual marker of “quality” or “prestige,” and for the most part, black images have been excluded from that aesthetic representation.’ Gates goes on to state that, at times, the celebration of Moonlight’s cinematography veers into the territory of fetishisation, perhaps because Jenkins’ and Laxton’s technical choices deliberately signal a relationship to other critically praised films. Although she does not go so far as to suggest that high-quality images are simply indicators of whiteness or that low-quality ones are inherently more authentic for representing blackness, I think Gates’s misgivings about the film’s aesthetics are misplaced.

We may think we know what black people are about, but we’ve rarely seen them represented like this on screen. As Zadie Smith says in Harper’s Magazine, ‘black people were declared beautiful back in the Sixties, but it has only recently been discovered that we [black people] are so.’ Jenkins and his team solve Hollywood’s longtime ‘problem’ of picturing black skin. They create a new visual language optimised to beautify and humanise blackness rather than whiteness. In doing so, they disprove those critics who say that Hollywood’s technology is just not amenable to change. Jenkins elevates his characters by bringing arthouse cinematic techniques to ‘the street;’ I don’t think this means he’s perpetuating an established taste politics, predicated on the marginalisation of black people. He is eager, firstly, to counter the sense that beauty and miserabilism can’t go hand in hand – ‘Sometimes dark childhoods’, says Jenkins, ‘can happen in beautiful places.’ And, secondly, to reshape our expectations as to what kinds of works should be done by black filmmakers.

There are many things that cinema can teach us, and one of these things may be how to see things more justly. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), Iris Murdoch get to the heart of it: seeing ethically means learning to see ‘not merely accurately, but justly, and lovingly.’ In the place of old stereotypes and depictions of black people, comes, with Moonlight, a new type of visual language and a new way of seeing. Jenkins offers us more just images of black people, and it is this, I think, that accounts for both its beauty and enormous success. As, Amanda Greer writes in Cinephile, ‘Stunning cinematography (those dreamy, melancholic beach shots), and a haunting, Romantic score add an art house sensibility to an already socially conscious and essential work […] Moonlight might just herald the re-fusing of art and cultural critique in American cinema.’

It is important to think about what the images do in service of the film’s larger messages and how they make viewers feel. This point is made very clearly in the swimming lesson in the film’s first part, set in high contrast colours and crystalline blues. Juan holds Chiron in the water, like a pieta over the waves. It is a moment that becomes a kind of baptism – Juan brings Chiron into a new reality of sorts. As Chiron floats, Juan says, ‘Right there, you’re in the middle of the world.’ In the midst of this there’s a real awareness of the camera as the water is lapping against the lens. Laxton had to manoeuvre a 200-pound camera in an underwater housing for the scene. The waves distort the lens to emphasise the feeling of being present at such an intimate moment. As Laxton says, ‘It somehow seems appropriate in a way that doesn’t speak to the realism of the movie but it somehow speaks to the emotional value that I think we were trying to present to our audience.’

It is important to acknowledge how the implementation of style can form a powerful critique of Hollywood and the film industry’s longtime racism. In this way, perhaps we can shift the debate about race beyond the politics of representation that has dominated the discussion of black images for so long. Moonlight compels viewers to read race in ways that extend beyond narrative. Jenkins has found an antidote to punditry: showing real-world texture, favouring specificity over generality, innovation over cliché.


Image: still from Moonlight

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Camilla Patini is a Masters student at the University of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Verity La, Bossy, Scissors Paper Pen and Feminartsy, among others. She is Co-Managing Editor of Feminartsy.

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