Portrait of a Drug Dealer as a Young Man
We're all built up with progress
But sometimes I must confess
We can deal with rockets and dreams
But reality, what does it mean
Ain't nothing said
Cause Freddie’s dead
- Freddie’s Dead, lyrics from Curtis Mayfield song from the film “Superfly”
Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” is a tender, reflective film about a young man’s journey from an abused childhood in the tough streets of Liberty City Florida. There are moments of overt violence but the overall mood is one of melancholic reflection. The central players are good people caught in desperate circumstances.The authenticity of the storytelling is born of autobiography. This story has much in common with both the director’s (Jenkins) and the writer’s (Tarell Alvin McCraney) childhoods. They both grew up in this notorious town near Miami. They both endured drugged addled mothers. The real revolution, however, lies in Jenkins telling this tale as a mirror image of blaxploitation films of the 1970s. “Moonlight” lifts the veil on “Youngblood Priest”, “Foxy Brown”, “ Sidney Lord Jones” and other African American protagonists who dominated the movie screens of the Nixon era inner city. McCraney and Jenkins were born nearly a decade after the zenith of this controversial film genre. Yet their work strikes a cord by giving backstory to the cartoon ghosts of a defining era in black cinema.
Blaxploitation films are remembered as comic book orgies of violence, mostly centered around the drug trade. Truth be told some of these movies made sincere attempts at documenting the African American experience in a sympathetic light. “Cornbread Earl and Me” shows honest hardworking families struggling against the blight of crime and the virulent racism of the authorities. “Moonlight”, whether intentionally or not, obliterates the foundational troupes in these hallmark films. There are no “magic negroes”, “baaad gangstas", good grandmothers, super-charged macho men, prisons, basketballs, red-neck cops, hookers, pimps, gun battles, funky music…… Yet this is the EXACT hardscrabble black ‘hood of the exploitation world. “Moonlight”, unlike its antecedents, builds a ghetto of characters rather than a simulacrum with archetypes. This is a world of idiosyncrasy and ambiguity. Mothers don’t cry and gangsters do.
The strange unspoken limbo of real life is captured in the taciturn gaze of Chiron. Throughout his childhood/adolescence/manhood his silent, inquisitive stare haunts the audience. “What is a faggot?”, is the question that quietly erupts from the mouth of this babe to his flummoxed mentor, Juan, a tough seasoned man of the streets. He is a Cuban refugee who swam to America’s shores to become an established drug dealer. The response is delivered with a rough hewn wisdom. The father figure explains it a phrase used to make gay people feel bad about themselves. This is followed by more questions such as, “am I gay?”, “are you a drug dealer?” and “do you sell drugs to my mother?. It is doubtful Juan has faced anything harder in his brutal life than responding to the queries of this small quiet child. The father-figure is, metaphorically, knocked down and demurs to his spouse. She signals that he must be careful and gentle in his responses. The spare dialogue houses a galaxy of emotion. That is the heart of “Moonlight”. The searing honesty that illuminates the dark corners.
The love story between Chiron and Kevin embodies a terrifying tension. It is reminiscent of Martin Sherman’s Bent, a gay love story set in a Nazi concentration camp. The ironically named, Liberty City, is a brutal world where a false move can lead to certain death. Inner City neighborhoods are dangerous for the weak and potentially deadly for those who break taboos, such as homosexual love. This is a macho, misogynistic world. Cash-money is king. Men rule. Women are tolerated for sex. Tenderness is weakness. Those who show their vulnerability are brutalized. Yet behind the savage exterior are people living their lives. There is wonderful visual metaphor of children playing in a vacant lot with a ball hewn from found materials. It’s not a formal park. It’s not a real game. It’s not the right equipment. Everyone is dressed wrong. Nevertheless it answers the question posed by Cat Stevens many years ago when mediating on a dystopian world: Where do the children play?
The film oscillates between straightforward storytelling, isolated portraits and melanges of image and abstract sound. Those quiet moments of the protagonist sitting alone in a bubble bath as a child morph into an adult sitting on his bed staring at his cell phone. These give us the lonely measure of the man-child. He longs for the poetry of escape… on the beach at night for his first kiss or his mentor gently teaching him how to swim. Unfortunately the unceasing meanness of the story bursts the respite. His beating at the hands of his love. The constant betrayal of his mother. The fear of being exposed. He bears the blows with a dignity not seen on the screen since Montgomery Clift faced a platoon of bullies in “The Young Lions”. It is probable that the schoolyard fight scene is based on that film’s sequences of the young Jewish soldier facing his bigoted tormentors. It is interesting to note that Clift himself faced being a closeted gay man in a violently hostile environment. In both scenes the actual protagonist of the altercation BEGS his victim, out of respect, not to stand up….. PLEASE STAY DOWN… but in both cases they rise and face more punches until the bliss of unconsciousness.
Chiron rises. He becomes, like his “father” before him, the everyman neighborhood drug dealer. He also shares his predecessors negative self-image. Something the outside world is only too eager to affirm. This film shows the lack of confidence behind the flashy car and loud music. He drives to see Kevin who is working in a restaurant. The man called him out of the blue after many years. Chiron parks his car, the refurbished version of his mentor’s. He has flashier tire rims and a louder stereo that blasts fearsome sounding rap. This is distinct from the smooth latin boss nova and classic music that are the genuine score of this film. His friend is startled by the physicality of his formerly gangly, slight, high school friend. Chiron seems as intimidating as his ride. Curtis Mayfield’ sums it up in his description of the protagonist in “Superfly”: “the man of the hour has an air of great power, the dudes have envied him for so long”. But’s, as his sweetheart knows, it’s all a front. Even gangsters love to be held. Especially by mommy.
The least successful parts of “Moonlight” center on the mother’s emotional negligence towards Chron. Naomi Harris gives an exceptional performance, but as the film progresses the encounters become more specific and less effective. The wonderful amorphous
vignettes of his mother’s drug fueled rages culminate in a stiff proscenium arch set piece about forgiveness. There are several moments in the childhood sequence that show a woman battling a complex competing narrative born of addiction. In the beginning she still holds a job and can keep up appearances. Her acts of malice are followed by shows of love towards her child. Her physical deterioration twins with cruel indifference. All affection vanishes when she demands money. The overt jealousy towards his surrogate parents, her dealer, lead to horrific reminders that “he owes HER”. The adult sequences, when all this is parsed through the eyes of recovery, lead to cliche dialogue transmitting the rage. Film artistry is overcome by a need to “tell it like it is”. Unfortunately it appears the real world emotions, born of actual neglect, got the better of their art. This also might be said for the overall running time. This work shares the identical flaw as “Manchester by the Sea”. The passion for the material overcomes the cool judgement of being a writer/director. Less is more, even if it is your child.
The final sequences of the film illustrate the best and worst in “Moonlight”. After many, many years, Chiron comes to visit Juan who now works as a cook in a diner. The chef summons the power of the empathic cook in “Like Water for Chocolate” and pours his tenderness into the preparation of a meal for his long lost love. This dinner is born of trying to absolve himself from past sins. He begs forgiveness in every tender pouring of a sauce or adjustment of a piece of lettuce. Unlike the final scene with Chiron’s mother all the emotion is beautifully conveyed by gestures and expression, rather than blunt force dialogue. This magnificent sequence, however, is followed by lengthy drawn out awkward silences. The moments themselves are compelling, but the duration undercuts the majesty of the reunification. The dinner, the car ride, the apartment embrace, all begged for concision. Perhaps the the director might have borrowed the form he used in the ‘learning to swim’ segment or the poetic off-sync encounters with the mother. The “adult” segment contain some of the strongest moments in the film, and yet it seems deadened by a straightjacket approach to storytelling. The “child” and “adolescent” chapters are less rooted and more surprising. Whereas the audience was captivated by the serendipity of the younger self, the older Chiron was hamstrung by the weight of adulthood. It is tempting to believe the “reality” of the denouement of Chiron’s story would have demanded a clearer plot line - the opposite is true. This was the moment where the poetry should have soared. We needed more of the dreamy magic of Terrence Malick, rather than the deadpan reality of Jim Jarmusch. In this case the reality lacked the Jarmusch’s sardonic humor, making the pain less easy to digest.
There is hope in these streets. It is born in the success of “Moonlight”. This is the rare American Feature, set in a contemporary setting, that does not have one Caucasian character… not even a cameo. This fact probably doesn’t occur to most audience members. That is where victory lies. “Moonlight” is neither black or white. This movie, about the coming of age of a gay black gangster, has a wide release and is being nominated for top awards… and yet no-one calls this a gay movie, a black movie or a gangster movie. It’s a quiet love story that soars above genre. Curtis Mayfield attempted to breath humanity into desperate characters in his score for “Superfly”, an unabashed celebration of blaxploitation. The fact that the music has outlived the original film proves the endurance of truth over gimmickry. This authenticity is rooted in shining light on the unspoken. Here is “Freddie’s Dead”. This is a homage to a heretofore forgotten character, a low level drug dealer murdered during the course of business:
Let the man rap a plan; 'said he'd send him home.
But his hope was a rope, and he should have known.
It's hard to understand; there was love in this man.
I'm sure all would agree, that his misery,
Was his woman and things.
Now Freddie's dead.
It is interesting to note that the powerful lyrics to this song were NOT included in the film. They were part of the soundtrack album. This intricate portrait of a human might have been too complicated for a film focused on flash and violence. “Moonlight” is about what is universally hidden and experienced. There are no drawn out gun battles. There are no prisons. There are no pyrotechnical effects. One might see Juan as a latter day “Freddie”. He followed his forebear’s lead with an timely/untimely trip to the grave. Juan died, but Chiron lives. That is the difference. “Superfly”, and its myriad of companion films, are a glamorized view of death though the veneer of the black experience. “Moonlight” is about life… period.