03 February 2017


I'm reluctant to write this, because Hollywood needs to make and celebrate more movies about black people's lives, and I don't mean "The Help."  And it needs to make and celebrate more movies about gay people's lives, and it certainly needs to make and celebrate movies about black gay people. But I don't think "Moonlight" is that movie. 

Five minutes in - less than that - I realized: poverty porn. And let me be clear, it is reasonably effective poverty porn. Ten minutes in, I was ready to leave the theater and burn the whole world down. To be fair, I feel that way most of the time in early 2017, so I'm not sure that's a major achievement, but it's not nothing. I don't know how anyone else might have felt, of course. Maybe there were black folks watching the movie with me who were glad to see their lives on film, on the screen. Or maybe everybody in the theater with me was thinking, "Oh, look at them" like we were on some higher class version of the Jungle Cruise. I don't know what other people think. 

So I'm sitting there moved to anger at the movie and moved to anger by the movie, and some of that anger because the pain of Little was so familiar. And because the sudden, unexpected discovery of joy, of a life that seemed like it belonged only to other people, was so familiar. 

And that isn't nothing, either. "Moonlight" has a few shining moments, transcendent moments, and it would be unfair to give those short shrift. It takes work to achieve that. You have to be doing something right in the rest of the film, poverty porn or not, for those moments to land. And they really did land, the scenes on the beach, or certainly the climactic moment at the school, which reminded me of "Marty," a movie that ranks high among my favorites. They were the sort of moment you go to the movies hoping to see. 

And yet: they arise out of, and submerge back into, a sea of bad cinematic choices. Some - the decision to make Little's mom a crack whore rather than a waitress or hotel maid, or the implausible post-climactic third act, seem driven by the desire to make the story As Dramatic As Possible. Others lay somewhere between laziness and ineptitude; the script is devoid of poetic ambition, until the clumsy moments it decides it needs a few poetic ambitions that the poor actors have to gamely clank their way through. Against this lack of ambition stand ostentatiously arty direction and cinematography and especially score. Which all contribute to the sense of high-class poverty porn. 

Which, you know, would be ok. But two things. 

First, the ending, which is genuinely lovely - but which, coming as it does after ninety minutes or so of film whose main redeeming quality is that it made me want to burn down the whole world - it is an ending that, as Richard Wright wrote of his own  work, would allow bankers' daughters to cry. It's a beautiful conclusion, and it suggests that the filmmakers had none of the courage of their convictions, or more likely never had those convictions at all. Which just makes the whole thing a waste. 

Second, though: all those Oscar nominations. This is the part that I'm reluctant to write. But here goes: I once went to an exhibit of Elijah Pierce's work at the Columbus Museum. Pierce was an African-American woodcarver, self-taught, a naive artist if you will, who became known in Columbus and maybe in the wider art world. It was a fantastic exhibition. But I remember comparing the cards explaining Pierce's work to those explaining the other artworks throughout the museum. The others' were about technique, composition, the use of light and shadow, that sort of thing. Pierce's cards were about content. They explained the subject matter depicted in his works. 

It was as if, for me, Elijah Pierce wasn't a real artist. He was a woodcarver, and a storyteller, but apparently it wasn't worth considering his artistic choices, why he used the colors he did, how he arranged his subjects, how his technique developed over the decades. And I thought, either you think he's a real artist, and you hold him to the same standard, and describe him in the same way as you do Bellows and Cadmus and every other artist in here - or this whole thing is a bit patronizing. 

It's hard for me, having seen "Moonlight," to think all those Oscar votes aren't about content: here's a Film about Black, Gay, Poor People, and we must recognize it. Have I mentioned I'm reluctant to write this? I don't know what was going on in those Oscar voters' heads. And, to be fair, Oscar has never really been, despite the color of those trophies, a gold standard. But "Moonlight," isn't a best picture caliber film, in my mind, and neither is its direction or score (which is mostly the absence of a score; admirable restraint, I suppose, but not usually what gets you an award.  Maybe it should, for that.)  It all has the sense of giving an award to the cripple so we can feel a little better about ourselves. 

Three standout performances, however (none of them nominated): Jharrel Jerome as the teenage Kevin, and Andre Holland as the adult; Holland in particular brings an affecting vulnerability to every moment onscreen. And Ashton Sanders is a kind of wonder as the teenage Chiron; his performance will haunt me for a long time. If it means we get to see more and more of him in the years ahead, then those nominations will redeem themselves.  

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