Sometimes a movie can be a mirror.
Perhaps that’s common knowledge to you — you may have experienced moments when you have watched a film and recognized that you share immense similarities with the protagonist presented before you — but such a feeling was foreign to me, as unfamiliar as a stranger’s face.
Until I saw Moonlight.
There are some works of art that become landmarks in a person’s life. The person knows who they were before they encountered the art, but not who they are afterward, and among the pieces of themselves that have scattered to the floor they find new elements, new additions to their identity. Moonlight is undoubtedly one of my landmarks. It is my Washington Monument, my Statue of Liberty. It is all of that and more.
And yet Moonlight is the toughest film I have ever sat through. I saw The Passion of the Christ and viewed its gore, its many lacerations, but there is a different sort of violence that takes place when the protagonist onscreen is you, when every single struggle of your life — public and secret — has been excavated and laid out for you to examine. Every scene that took place in the film I recognized. All of the sorrow of being a young, black, gay child who grew up in poverty and familial turmoil I know well and was reminded of. Watching the main character Chiron mature was like receiving an unannounced visit from someone whom I hoped I would never see again. It pained me deeply, but it also left me feeling more whole than a work of art ever has.
But that’s enough about me; my kinship with the film aside, the film is a masterpiece. Every single actor, from the main cast to the one-line actors, gives an authentic performance, and if they’re not immediately booked for high-profile roles, it will be an almost sure-fire sign of Hollywood ignorance and discrimination. In his role as the character Juan, Mahershala Ali (of the U.S. television show House of Cards fame) gives one of the strongest performances I’ve seen. It’s not at all flashy, and yet it sets the tone for the entire film — much like how Anthony Hopkins, in less than 25 minutes of screen time, leaves his mark on the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs.
The film's narrative is impeccable, its images are astoundingly brutal and gentle and progressive, and if Moonlight is not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it will be one of the biggest snubs in the Academy’s history. This film could teach anyone how to write, how to make art, how to accurately portray life and all of its seemingly irresolvable faults. This film is nothing short of magnificent.
But I think the reason you should go see the film is plain and simple: If you are LGBTQ, if you are a person of color, if you are a person who grew up in a low-income household or lives in one now, you may see yourself. For perhaps the first time, on a big screen, in a film that is quickly becoming mainstream, you may truly see you. But if you do not belong to any of those minority communities — if you are white, straight, and above the poverty line — you will see someone who’s not you. You won’t learn everything there is to know about them and the communities I mentioned. You won’t know all of their struggles. You won’t be able to make blanket statements about their lives from watching this film (or any other film). But you will see a glimpse of it. You will see the other, and that may make all the difference.
It is no secret that we are living in a divisive era of our society. If I had to provide a name for our situation, I would call it a time of “no-other-ness.” There’s an extreme lack of desire to know the other, to step outside of our comfort zones and meet the people who live differently than us, who believe differently than us. This is why Islamophobia is on the rise. This is why there’s rampant talk of deporting Mexicans without understanding what could motivate someone to risk their life in order to get past a border fence, into a country that is unwelcoming. This is why police pull the trigger when they’re standing in front of a black person more often than when they’re standing in front of anyone else; why women’s health and women's agency is often an afterthought within the chambers of Congress; why LGBTQ people are often refused entry into the inner circles of churches and religious organizations, and are denied the right to serve and lead and love and be loved. This is why.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
If you are not LGBTQ, or a person of color, you may feel weird when you enter a theater that’s showing Moonlight. On both occasions that I went (yes, I saw it twice in two days), the theaters I sat in were filled with communities I don’t often see gathered together, especially not in joy, especially not in freedom. But I don’t think you should allow the fear of foreignness to keep you from stepping into the unknown — especially when, in this case, the unknown is where peace and beauty lie.
For the interiors of those theaters were glorious sights. All around me were numerous LGBTQ couples, couples who were not afraid to hold their partner’s hand, to rest their head on each other’s shoulder, to do what I have seen heterosexual couples do my entire life. All around me were black people of various ages, from young adulthood to senior citizenship, all of whom appeared eager to see onscreen what they don’t normally see onscreen: black people living in the present day. Not a black person enduring slavery. Not a black person marching against the civil rights movement. Black people in the here and now, living their lives, doing what we do.
That’s what you will see if you go to see Moonlight when it comes to your city, your town. That’s what you will see if you look away from your mirror, if you turn your gaze elsewhere. You will see humanity you otherwise might have missed.
And you will see it clearly in the moonlight.