Forty years ago, in his opus of film criticism The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin wrote that “the distance between the audience and a screen performer is an absolute that masquerades as intimacy.” For Baldwin, Hollywood’s way of manufacturing degrading stereotypes of Black Americans for White consumption meant that Black audiences had to turn elsewhere—to theatre, to music, to literature—for stories that depicted the depth and subtlety of Black life.
“The first time I ever saw black actors at work was on the stage: And it is important to note that the people I was watching were black, like me,” Baldwin wrote. “Nothing that I had seen before had prepared me for this.”
But Baldwin was writing in the mid-’70s, before the L.A. Rebellion blossomed into an aesthetic revolution and before the hackneyed Blaxploitation films of the same period bulldozed the way for Black self-expression through cinema. When Baldwin wrote The Devil Finds Work, Spike Lee’s hyper-political statement cinema was still a decade away and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) hadn’t debuted its affective description of Black-queer life in South Carolina.
Here in 2016, a full four decades after The Devil Finds Work was first released, pop-culture website The Ringer claimed that three of the five directors comprising Hollywood’s new elite are Black. Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, 2012; Selma, 2014) continues to slay with the 2016 Netflix documentary 13th. Ryan Coogler barely left audiences time to reel from Creed (2015) before breathing new life into the superhero genre with Black Panther (forthcoming in 2017). Into this renaissance of Black achievement in cinema comes director Barry Jenkins’ second feature, Moonlight, winner of the Chicago International Film Festival’s Audience Award and recipient of near-unanimous acclaim from The New York Times, The Atlantic and others.
Baldwin’s book The Devil Finds Work was a bildungsroman, the story of how a burgeoning Black intellect came into his own by ripping apart and then reconstructing the films of his youth using scalpel-sharp observation. Jenkins—who once Instagrammed a screenshot of James Baldwin’s likeness on his iPhone lock screen—plots a similar course in Moonlight. The film follows a Black youth’s maturation across three filmic chapters. As seen in the movie poster, a Blue Note Records-esque triptych image, the main character is played by three separate actors as he ages. Alex R. Hibbert (known as Little), Trevante Rhodes (Chiron) and Ashton Sanders (Black) each offer performances more coiled and nervous than the last. With no role models to speak of except the neighborhood pusher who sold crack to Black’s mother, Black grows from a bullied queer to a gruff, buff drug dealer.
Jenkins’ creative triumph in Moonlight is his illumination of the various masks on which masculinity depends. As if to absorb the beatings he suffered in his youth, Black becomes a workout junky who lifts weights to cope with his considerable emotional burdens. He plays deafening trap music to drown out his anxiety about his sexuality. Director of photography James Laxton’s sumptuous shots show Black’s black skin in a beautiful, often sublime light.
Baldwin’s novels may influence Jenkins, but film is a visual medium that only happens to have words. At each turn in his life, Black is defined by how little he speaks. But his taciturn ways don’t turn the audience away so much as they draw us closer to his smoldering psyche. Moonlight does more with a look than it does with a line.
And here might be the key to why Moonlight has connected with critics and Black audiences. Black Americans exist as something like a separate racial caste that is forced—by custom, habit and necessity—to interact with others who share few of their same cultural references and experiences. Many find solace in silence, or else succumb to performed versions of what they imagine the outsiders in their midst want to hear. Rather than have his main character blather on and on, Jenkins conveys the protagonist’s discomfort through the very screen that Baldwin condemned as a barrier between actors and audiences.
The marketing of Moonlight has itself become a meta-commentary on this situation: When Jenkins tried explaining to a White journalist why it was important that the dialogue of characters in Moonlight did not code-switch to make the film more palatable to the cultural mainstream, the journalist wrote that the film was devoid of “coat switching.” The ensuing comedy of the Twitter hashtag #CoatSwitching reveals why code-switching exists in the first place, and demonstrates why Black spends so much of his time on screen in silence. When others won’t be bothered to speak your language on your terms, why bother to speak at all?
The dialogue of Moonlight is often slurred, with meaning buried beneath thick layers of African American Vernacular English. At other times, Jenkins’ commitment to authentic language reads as theatrical in the same way that many rap records are. Those who know Black people mostly through BET and the television show Empire might mistake the consumption of these spectacles for actual proximity to Black people. And audiences used to consuming Black death as a form of farce may miss the tragedy of the movie’s more poignant moments. So if you’re seeing the film in a crowd composed mostly of people who aren’t Black, expect laughter at inappropriate times: Black might get his revenge on his neighborhood bullies, but for Black men, self-assertion is often followed by incursion from the criminal justice system.
For audiences who belong to the on-screen world Jenkins has created, Moonlight is cathartic. It isn’t that this all-Black drama is free from stress or self-hate. But the resolution of these stresses coming from characters as Black as those who inflict some of the pain conveys a sense of self-love. Earlier this year in her album A Seat At The Table, Solange Knowles struck the same chord. “To all my niggas in the whole wide world,” she sang on “F.U.B.U.”, “for us—this shit is for us.” Back in 2015, music critic Larry Mizell Jr. wrote in The Stranger that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t have to assert that Black lives matter because the record was the sound of Black lives actually mattering. Something similar could be said of Moonlight.
Activism is a performance that takes place in the context of—and in response to—White viewership. This work is necessary. But it’s also draining, inasmuch as it interferes with the ability of beleaguered communities to see themselves in their own light. “The language of the camera is the language of our dreams,” Baldwin wrote in The Devil Finds Work. In increasingly dark times, Moonlight shows a deeper shade of Black.