Magazine article The New Yorker

Black Power

Magazine article The New Yorker

Black Power

Article excerpt

Black Power

Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight."

Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I'd live long enough to see a movie like "Moonlight," Barry Jenkins's brilliant, achingly alive new work about black queerness? Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he'd survive to see a version of his life told onscreen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace? Based on a story by the gay black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney--Jenkins himself is not gay--the film is virtuosic in part because of Jenkins's eye and in part because of the tale it tells, which begins in nineteen-eighties Miami.

Four white Miami-Dade police officers have beaten a young black man to death and been acquitted of manslaughter, setting off riots in the city's black enclaves--Liberty City, Overtown, and elsewhere. It's hard for a man of color walking those sun-bleached streets not to watch his back or feel that his days are numbered. That's how Juan (the beautiful Mahershala Ali) carries himself--defensively, warily. He's a dope dealer, so there's that, too. He may be a boss on the streets--his black do-rag is his crown--but he's intelligent enough to know that he's expendable, that real power doesn't belong to men like him. Crack is spreading through the city like a fever. Stepping out of his car, Juan asks a cranky drug runner what's up. (Jenkins and his ardent cinematographer, James Laxton, film the car as if it were a kind of enclosed throne.) Juan, his mouth fixed in a pout--sometimes he sucks on his tongue, as if it were a pacifier--doesn't take his eyes off the street. He can't afford to; this situation, any situation, could be changed in an instant by a gun or a knife.

In this world, which is framed by the violence to come--because it will come--Juan sees a skinny kid running, his backpack flapping behind him. He's being pursued by a group of boys, and he ducks into a condemned building to escape. Juan follows, entering through a blasted-out window, a symbol, perhaps, of the ruin left by the riots. Inside, in a dark, silent space, the kid stares at Juan, and Juan stares at the kid. There's a kind of mirroring going on. Maybe Juan is looking at his past while the boy looks up at a future he didn't know he could have. It's a disorienting scene, not so much because of what happens as because of what doesn't happen. Throughout the movie, Jenkins avoids what I call Negro hyperbole--the overblown cliches that are so often used to represent black American life. For instance, Juan doesn't take that runaway kid under his wing in order to pimp him out and turn him into a drug runner; instead, he brings him home to feed him, nourish him.

Juan lives in a small, unassuming house with his soft-spoken but confident partner, Teresa (played by the singer Janelle Monae). The couple look on as the kid eats and eats; it's clear, though, that he's hungry for more than food. The boy doesn't even say his name, Chiron, until Juan nudges him: "You don't talk much but you damn sure can eat." The affectionate scolding makes Chiron (Alex Hibbert, a first-time actor, who couldn't be better) sit up and take notice; it tells him that he counts. And he knows he counts even more when Juan calls him by his nickname--Little--as a way of claiming him.

"Faggot" is another name, and it's one that Chiron hears often as he grows up. He's an outsider at school, and at home, too. He lives in public housing with his single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who goes on drug binges, less to alleviate her sadness than to express her wrath--against the world and, especially, against her son, who she thinks keeps her from the world. Chiron lives for the moments when he can get away from his mother's countless recriminations and needs, and swim in the unfamiliar waters of love with Juan and Teresa. One indelible scene shows Juan holding Chiron in his arms in a rippling blue ocean, teaching him to float--which is another way of teaching him the letting go that comes with trust, with love. …

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