I feel like this one may land with a thud, considering everyone and their mother seems obsessively interested in extolling this film, but I thought MOONLIGHT was massively overrated.
This film, which lightly traces the hard life of a gay black man beginning life in an impoverished neighborhood in Miami, is certainly beautiful and poignant. The acting is meritorious – I’m a sucker for good child acting and this film kills it in this regard. If a movie’s power derives from hardened silences, tearful reunions, human tenderness juxtaposed on callous circumstance, MOONLIGHT is essentially CITIZEN KANE.
To the white and privileged (including myself), the nefarious marketing ploy of MOONLIGHT prays on the same problematic liberal instinct that the movies PRECIOUS and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD exploit. These are impoverished African-American characters with drug problems, their lives are harder and more complicated than yours, their neighborhoods more dangerous, their choices narrower, their poetry starker. These undertold stories from underheard communities must be important (right?) because they are undertold and underheard. I have to like this movie—right?—because it’s important. It’s Oscar-worthy. It’s…real.
But what speciously feels like I’m racist if I don’t like this, is actually (to employ just a little hyperbole in the name of syllogism) I’m racist if I do. I’d argue that one aspect of racism lies in a tendency to under-critique individuals in favor of socially-bequeathed tropes about what THOSE PEOPLE are like, how THAT GROUP acts, what PEOPLE LIKE HER know, what GUYS LIKE THEM perpetrate.
But is the movie good? Haven’t we seen drug dealers? Haven’t we seen Crack Heads? Haven’t we seen poverty and tragedy, Bad Mothers and Absent Fathers, Bullying, Bigotry, Fear? Does the story twist us in new ways, test our limits, make us hate or love better, make us scared for our own lives? Do we get wet in the waves of it? Do we shiver in its breeze?
I’d argue that we don’t. MOONLIGHT traces a life, but that life is merely grand gestures of violence and reconciliation. For a more that’s so god damn boring so god damn frequently, it’s so blithely unsubtle. All these important conversations and silences have a way of rendering none of them important, and it’s exasperating. I’m not saying the struggle of the characters here isn’t interesting, but to call MOONLIGHT the best or even one of the best movies of the year is to ignore that it is not particularly interesting in its telling. It’s overlong and redundant; its perpetual Shallow Depth of Field and super-saturated Ghetto vistas become beautiful ciphers with little meaning (probably much like Miami itself).
But we aren’t allowed to engage with the text like that, because to do so would be to deny its power. Instead, MOONLIGHT is the gay, male PRECIOUS because if offers reprieve from the preconscious guilt of white privilege—symbolic catharsis that confuses FEELING SOMETHING for DOING SOMETHING. If we can heap praise and awards on undertold and underheard stories we don’t have to tell and hear the REAL story, and that’s how racism hides in egalitarian art. There is nothing malicious in anyone liking this movie, but there is a reason to disbelieve. Because the malicious thing is the fear of Other imbibed in human nature on all sides, which society strives valiantly to extirpate. We’re not quite there yet.
#oscarssowhite, yes, but not because Viola Davis needs Oscars, like now. The problem is that we need Viola Davis to get Oscars so we feel less implicated in the infernal machine of racism. The Oscars are for us.