LGBT Films Today – Moonlight
By Dan Pal
Back in May, the Huffington Post reported in an article that the “depiction of LGBT characters in Hollywood has actually gotten worse.” Much of this was based on GLAAD’s 2016 Studio Responsibility Index which suggests, among other things, that the LGBT presence in films continues primarily in the form of minor characters and are rarely racially diverse or transgender-focused. In terms of studios, neither Disney nor Paramount included any LGBT content in their 2015 slates of films. While none of this sounds promising, there have been a number of noteworthy LGBT-themed films released in the past year. In the weeks to come I will be reviewing many of these films made not only by Hollywood and independent filmmakers but by production companies around the world.
Right now everyone is glowing over Barry Jenkins’s indie film Moonlight which is garnering a host of end of the year awards and will likely be a major player at the Oscars. It tells the story of a young black man’s self-discovery in three separate stages of his life, from childhood to adulthood. The film is less a “coming out” story than of a boy, Chiron, growing to understand himself within the black and drug communities. As a boy and outcast, his confusion over his identity first surfaces as he asks Juan (Mahershala Ali), who serves as a brief father figure, what being gay means. By adolescence he has his first intimate encounter with another boy, Kevin, which is unable to develop into anything further once the boys are back to the reality, cliques, and harshness of school life. As an adult, he has now taken on the masculine persona of Juan and is physically pumped up to the max. Yet, surprisingly, he still remains stuck within himself and only at the end do we get a small sense that he is awakening to his sexuality.
Moonlight is not the romantic, sexually focused, coming of age story that Hollywood and the independent world so often has presented. Rather it looks at the character as a whole. Chiron has to come to terms with how he fits into his various identities – whether it is his sexual orientation, his relationship to his addict mother, or his status within the drug community. He’s primarily a boy becoming a man rather than a boy becoming a gay man. That’s refreshing if a bit frustrating at times as it leaves out some key details in Chiron’s awakening. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that between episodes two and three, he hasn’t had encounters with other men – especially since he did have a connection to Kevin and does spend some time in prison. His highly developed physique would likely attract a multitude of men there or anywhere!
What does makes the film work though is its final sequence in which Chiron (now referred to as “Black”) reaches out to Kevin, presently a diner owner. The two have an honest discussion which is layered with years of bottled up emotions. The scene is beautifully acted yet again a bit of a let down from a traditional narrative sense. We want to see this connection between the two men reach a climax yet the film doesn’t settle for this type of cliché ending. The real conclusion is that the boy we’ve been following has now finally begun the process of self-disclosure and expression. That is his real arc, not whether or not he can end up with a satisfying physical or emotional relationship with another man. The fact that he can even express anything about himself by this point is a significant accomplishment for the character.
Some audience members might be a bit disappointed with the film because it doesn’t take them to a satisfying conclusion that is typical of a Hollywood movie (which this is not.) There is nothing especially explosive by the ending but it’s the subtly of Chiron’s growth that should be noted here. Perhaps the film is a bit overhyped at this point. Seeing this young black character in a number of situations and settings that we’ve seen many times before (dealing with a self-involved addicted mother, the drug culture, remaining in the closet, etc.) does give the film a sense of “been there done that.” However, it is certainly a relevant and necessary film as it examines the whole of a boy who lives in a rough climate and just happens to grow quietly and incidentally into gay adulthood.