I was fortunate in being able to attend, in a 24-hour period, screenings of two of the films in contention for Oscars this weekend. Though their stories are set in very specific and different communities and cultures, both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are films which reveal their characters’ inner lives with a sensitivity that prompts not just empathy but the realisation – as outstanding drama will – that their travails reflect universal themes and humanity in all its complexity. Common to both films is their examination of masculinity and the trouble that men have expressing their feelings. Both are blessed with exceptional performances, convincing dialogue that leaves spaces for silence, and an imaginative use of music.

‘Who is you?’ is a question flung more than once in Moonlight. For Chiron, growing up gay and black in 1980s Miami, the challenge is unmistakable. Barry Jenkins’ film tells Chiron’s story in three chapters, each identified by the different names and identities he assumes, or is given, at different ages: ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’. One of the striking aspects of Moonlight is that Chiron is played at different ages by three different actors: Alex Hibbert as ‘Little’ (extraordinarily good in his first film role), Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as ‘Black’.

Mahershala Ali as Juan and Alex Hibbert as Chiron in “Moonlight
Mahershala Ali as Juan and Alex Hibbert as Chiron in “Moonlight

The film opens as ‘Little’ is being chased into a derelict house by bullies from his school. Sheltering  in what turns out to be a drug-users’ den, he is rescued by Juan (played by Mahershala Ali). Imposing yet gentle, Juan is a drug dealer whose clients include Little’s mother, Paula (a truly scary performance by Naomie Harris). Unable to coax a word out of the boy, Juan takes him home hoping that his partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe) might be able to discover his name and where he lives.

Slowly she succeeds and Jaun returns the boy to his mother. Soon the boy is a regular visitor at the home of the drug dealer and his partner, seeking acceptance and stability he cannot find in his own home or at school, while for his part Juan feels compelled to take on the role of the father the boy lacks. There’s an unforgettable scene in which Juan takes Chiron to the beach to teach him to swim. Supporting the boy in his arms in the rippling blue water of the ocean, he encourages him to float. Almost wordless, the scene speaks of trust, and love.

Mahershala Ali and Alex Hibbert in Moonlight
Mahershala Ali and Alex Hibbert in Moonlight

While Chiron gropes towards a recognition of his own identity, Juan’s true nature remains something of a mystery. In the passage which lends the film its title, he and the boy sit on the shore looking out to sea as the evening light fades, as Juan recalls his own beginnings:

I’ve been here a long time. Out of Cuba. A lot of black folks are Cuban. You wouldn’t know from being here now. I was a wild little shortie, man. Just like you. Running around with no shoes on, the moon was out. This one time, I run by this old… this old lady. I was running, howling. Kinda of a fool, boy. This old lady, she stopped me. She said, ‘Running around, catching a lot of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.

After a pause Little asks, ‘Is your name ‘Blue?’ Laughing, Juan replies, ‘Nah. At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.’

The beauty of Moonlight lies in how it slowly reveals the inner lives and human complexity of its characters. It’s a film of silences and memorable dialogue (written by Jenkins, but adapted from an unperformed play by Tarell McCraney). While there is memorable dialogue in Moonlight, it’s the silences and what is left unsaid that really lingers in the mind.

For example, take the scene around the dinner table at Juan and Teresa’s house when ‘Little’ asks suddenly, ‘What’s a faggot?’ After a long silence, during which the camera has remained focussed on Juan’s face as he works at an answer, Juan replies: ‘A faggot is … a word used to make gay people feel bad.’ There’s another significant pause, the camera now on Chiron’s face as he struggles to articulate the question that haunts him. ‘Am I a faggot?’

‘No,’ replies Juan. ‘You’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.’

In chapter 2, ‘Chiron’, the teenager finds intimacy with a confident friend, Kevin, in a delicately observed beach scene. But the consolation is short-lived; Kevin betrays him during another round of schoolyard bullying. In the third chapter we see how, years later, an almost unrecognisable Chiron, who in the interim has ‘built himself up from the ground upwards’, meets Kevin again. This scene, played out in a diner in which Barbara Lewis’s ‘Hello Stranger’ plays on the jukebox, is a miracle of understated dialogue that captures the hidden yearning that has survived Chiron’s transition from boyhood to manhood and his redefinition of his identity as ‘Black’, the drug-dealing gangster, complete with do-rag and gold ‘fronts’ on his teeth. Chiron speaks of crying so much in his life that he feels like he could simply turn to liquid and roll into the ocean.

In a key exchange, Kevin challenges Chiron with the question, ‘Who is you man? Them fronts? That car? Who is you Chiron?’ To which ‘Black’ responds: ‘I’m me man. Ain’t trying to be nothing else.’

Kevin: ‘So you hard now?’

Black: ‘I ain’t say that.’

Kevin: ‘Then what?’

Later, I found Barry Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy, on the internet. Made back in 2009, it follows two African-American twenty-somethings as they wander the streets of San Francisco after a one-night stand. Micah – born black in a city only 7% black, and with experience of the gentrification and re-zoning following the dot.com boom that has turned once predominantly black neighbourhoods wealthy and white, asks Joanne, ‘In one word – how do you define yourself?’ This question lies at the heart of both of Jenkins’ films.

Micah’s answer to his own question is that he sees himself as black, because this is his identity in the eyes of the world: ‘That’s what people see.’ As for Joanne, she refuses such a limiting definition. She lives in an up-market apartment that belongs to her partner, an art curator who is white, currently in London on business. ‘Does it matter that he’s white?’ she asks. ‘Yes and no,’ Micah replies. It’s clear that Micah is both puzzled and intrigued by Joanne, who is into indie music and who suggests they visit MoMA, even though, in his eyes, two black people spending Sunday at an art museum does not fit the stereotype.

Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac as Micah in Medicine for Melancholy
Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac as Micah in Medicine for Melancholy

While in his first film, Jenkins interested in exploring the social reality of a city which has one of the lowest percentages of African Americans (touching on the bulldozing of its preeminent black neighbourhood, the Fillmore district, in the 1960s in a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at urban renewal), in Moonlight the same questions of identity are interrogated in a story set in a city with a larger black presence. There are no white characters in Moonlight.

Reviewing the film for Roger Ebert.com, Brian Tallerico wrote:

It is one of those rare pieces of filmmaking that stays completely focused on its characters while also feeling like it’s dealing with universal themes about identity, sexuality, family, and, most of all, masculinity. And yet it’s never preachy or moralizing. It is a movie in which deep, complex themes are reflected through character first and foremost. Jenkins’ film is confident in every single aspect of the way that a critic can use that word. Every performance, every shot choice, every piece of music, every lived-in setting – it’s one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step.

For the Atlantic, David Sims wrote:

Jenkins’s movie is a meditation on growing up, and the ways we all try to prevent ourselves from standing out or getting hurt. There’s insight to Moonlight that should pierce viewers to their core, even if Chiron’s life is very different from their own. This is not an ‘issue’ film that’s mainly ‘about’ race or sexuality; this is a humane movie, one that’s looking to prompt empathy and introspection most of all.

Writing in New Yorker, Hilton Als in ‘Moonlight undoes all our expectations‘ observed how ‘Moonlight undoes our expectations as viewers, and as human beings, too.’

As we watch, another movie plays in our minds, real-life footage of the many forms of damage done to black men, which can sometimes lead them to turn that hateful madness on their own kind, passing on the poison that was their inheritance. As Juan squires his fatherless friend about, we can’t help thinking, Will he abuse him? Will it happen now? Jenkins keeps the fear but not the melodrama in his film. He builds his scenes slowly, without trite dialogue or explosions. He respects our intelligence enough to let us just sit still and watch the glorious faces of his characters as they move through time. Scene follows scene with the kind of purposefulness you find in fairy tales, or in those Dickens novels about boys made and unmade by fate.

There’s a subtlety, too, in the music score for Moonlight which blends chamber orchestration and plangent piano with Mozart, Caetano Veloso, and hip-hop. The cinematography of James Laxton is also key to the film’s quietly understated mood. Laxton was also cinematographer on Medicine for Melancholy, where he desaturated the film to such an extent that it looks almost black and white. For Moonlight, Laxton does the opposite: shooting with rich textures and saturated colours that give much of the film the feel of a waking dream. I don’t know enough about cinematography to give a name to what Laxton does here technically, shooting faces close-up and intimate with backgrounds fuzzy and out of focus, but the result is exquisite, creating a kind of exalted beauty in the sunburst days and neon-blurred nights on hot Miami streets.

Moonlight is a brilliant and sensitive film. For Josh Lee, writing in the Guardian as a gay black man, the film led him to recall the whitewashed heterosexual culture he had grown up in:

Watching Moonlight, I reflected on the years I’d spent not understanding myself and the time I’d wasted being too scared to ask questions, and how one film could lay all the answers I’d needed during my childhood at my feet. When you strip away all the messages of hope and reconciliation and fear and love that Moonlight contains, what’s left is a simple, powerful affirmation for queer black men. We exist. We’re supposed to exist.

A day later, watching Manchester by the Sea, I was transported to a different corner of the United States and a very different community and culture. Though I wouldn’t want to overstate their similarities, common to both films, I felt, is their examination of masculinity and the trouble that men have expressing their feelings. Moreover, both films reveal their characters’ inner lives with a sensitivity that prompts not just empathy but the realisation – as outstanding drama will – that their travails reflect universal themes and humanity in all its complexity. Above all, both are films blessed with exceptional performances, convincing dialogue that leaves spaces for silence, and an imaginative use of music.

Manchester by the Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. I haven’t seen either of his other two films, but, as one reviewer expressed it, he ‘specialises in studies of grief, guilt, and bewilderment … closely focused anatomies of characters who’ve suffered extreme emotional trauma.’ Here, janitor and handyman Lee Chandler, played superbly by Casey Affleck, is the one who is suffering. I think we’re about half-way into this very long, yet totally absorbing, film before we understand the reason for his grief.

We first meet Lee in opening scenes in which we see him go about his work as a janitor in Boston: he is sullen and uncommunicative with the residents with whose leaks and blockages he must deal. Quick to anger, wary and enclosed within himself, his situation is, it seems, symbolised by the bleak basement room in which he lives.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

Lee gets a call that his brother Joe has suffered a heart attack. He immediately sets off for his hometown of Manchester by the Sea, but Joe dies before Lee gets to the hospital. Later, Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has named him in his will as the guardian of his teenage son, Patrick. In flashbacks we learn that Patrick’s mother  is an alcoholic whose whereabouts have been unknown for some time.

Through flashbacks we also see Lee in happier times with his brother – and the boy whose upbringing is now his responsibility – on fishing trips aboard the family boat for which he is now also responsible. In these flashbacks we also see that Lee had a wife and two young children. Lee in the past is a different man – expressive, physical, impulsive and convivial. But now he is floored by his brother’s bequest, reluctant to commit to being guardian of a boy he once held in great affection and unwilling to move back to Manchester.

At this stage in the film, Lee’s reasons remain hidden, since – apart from occasional outbursts of violence – he is unable to articulate them. By way of an example (and illustrating that Lonergan’s screenplay also has its moments of humour), take this exchange between Patrick and Lee after lee has put his fist through a window in a moment of rage: ‘What happened to your hand?’ Patrick asks. ‘I cut it,’ Lee mutters. ‘Oh,’ Patrick says, ‘for a minute there, I didn’t know what happened.’

In its second half, the film consists of two intertwined narrative threads. In one, we learn of a truly terrible event which explains Lee’s inability to express his feelings, and the suspicions which some about town have about him. It becomes evident that Lee’s acceptance of his menial role as janitor, and his bleak basement life, is a form of penance for a deep and unshakeable sense of guilt.

In the other, we observe the awkward but slowly thawing relationship between Lee and the teenage Patrick, who is as sullen as Lee, as self-centred as only a teenager can be, and unable to express the grief he feels at the loss of his father. While Lee makes plans for Patrick to move back to Boston with him, Patrick, with friends and family connections in Manchester, resists the idea.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a searing portrait of a trauma and the difficulty of living with the scars that guilt and grief leaves behind. Near the end of the film, Lee meets his former wife on a street corner in Manchester. It’s an extraordinary scene that goes on for several minutes and consists of little more than alternate shots of the two characters as they try to express their feelings in words. Instead, in a way that typifies the film as a whole, the pair are barely able to speak. There are tears, half-spoken words, and anguished looks as they try to bridge the gulf that opened between them on one terrible night, only to find the distance too great, and the wounds they have inflicted on each other too raw.

Footnote

Later I watched Barry Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy, made 8 years before Moonlight. Filmed in San Francisco, it starts the morning after a one-night stand, with Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins) waking up next to each other and struggling to make small talk. They spend the day together and the politics of race and culture and gentrification end up being a particular theme in the film. Review on Roger Ebert.com here.

Then I explored the previous films of Kenneth Lonergan. You Can Count on Me (2000) is an enjoyable film about the relationship between Sammy, a divorcee with an 8-year-old son, who works at a bank in a small town, and her unreliable brother, Terry. Then I watched Margaret which was filmed in 2005, but not released until six years later, and even then disappeared almost immediately. Released in a three hour cut, Lonergan had wanted a longer film, and the six year battle over the cut shows in the final version with sudden, jarring jumps in the continuity. Like Manchester by the Sea, it’s a searing cinematic experience about an appalling, privileged New York teenager who is culpable in the death of a pedestrian when she causes a bus driver to miss a red light. I waited for a character named Margaret to appear before realising that the film got its title from ‘Spring and Fall,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poem addressed to a young girl of that name. The film is far from successful.

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