The first time I saw Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was at its first public screening in New England—an event so well-attended that at least a dozen people ended up standing behind the last row, unable to find a seat but unwilling to ask management for a rain check. (They were all still there when the end credits rolled.)
By contrast, the second time I saw Moonlight—about a month later on a Friday afternoon—I had the entire left side of the 300-seat auditorium to myself, with maybe four or five other souls scattered about here and there.
Without question, those were the two most memorable movie-going experiences of my year, but if I could only save one, it would be the latter.
As a rule, of course, going to the cinema is a fundamentally communal experience—an occasion for hundreds of total strangers to gather in front of a giant screen and draw energy from each other’s presence. For any film that demands an audible reaction from its audience—say, a comedy or a horror flick—the power of the crowd is essential to one’s overall enjoyment and cannot be replicated in any other milieu.
Moonlight is not that kind of film. As a piece of drama, its effectiveness is in no way dependent upon how many eyes are watching it at a given moment, and its cumulative impact on one’s consciousness is at once so violent and so personal that you almost cease being aware that you are in a public place. It’s an out-of-body experience for which no other bodies are required.
To see Jenkins’s film in a packed house, then, is itself a singular phenomenon—not a shared journey among 300 individuals so much as 300 separate journeys occurring simultaneously in the same room. Because Moonlight has so little in the way of plot—because its hero is so soft-spoken, its agenda implied rather than explicated—you emerge from the theater realizing that no other person in the hall saw the exact same movie you did, just as a great painting looks slightly different from one patron to the next.
As I left that opening night screening—probably the heaviest concentration of African-Americans and gays that I’ve ever encountered in a movie theater—I hadn’t the slightest idea what anyone else was thinking. As the movie played, some would occasionally chuckle at a not-especially-funny line, and there was a fair share of hooting and hollering at the shocking development at the end of Act 2 (the one involving a chair). On the whole, however, the abiding response from that crowd was silence—both during and after the feature—as if their inklings of what this film is about were still gestating in their minds as they made their way to the exit.
Driving home—both shaken and stirred—I realized I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of Moonlight, either, so why should I expect it from anyone else? While I was confident that something fairly extraordinary had happened and that it would be quite a while before I fully recovered from whatever the hell it was, only later was I able to fathom the degree to which Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney had all but reinvented the wheel of storytelling—at least when it came to blackness and masculinity—and only then could I begin to account for the sheer intensity of feeling that the movie aroused in me as few movies ever have.
In truth, it was only when I saw Moonlight again—with four weeks of reflection in between—that I could be sure, beyond doubt, that my initial impressions were not a figment of my imagination—that, if anything, they weren’t enthusiastic enough. Sitting in that barren theater—just me, Chiron and a whole bunch of empty space—I found myself elevated to a realm of higher consciousness that only the most transcendent films can take you. For 111 minutes, the rest of the world seemed to disappear and the only thing that mattered was what would happen to Chiron next.
To be honest, I’m still a little nervous about examining my unconditional love for Moonlight too closely, out of fear that deconstructing the reasons why the film works will somehow cause it not to work in the future. Having fallen hard for small, independent movies in the past, I am preternaturally wary of the moment when I suddenly snap out of it—when all the original passion drains from my body and I am left to wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. (I am told many relationships operate in more or less the same way.)
If there is any single reason to believe this will not happen—that Moonlight will shine like a beacon for as long as people watch movies—it is that every last frame is, in some way, an act of love.
In scene after scene, we are presented with moments of pure human compassion that rarely make their way into commercial cinema: The love of Juan (Mahershala Ali) in rescuing Chiron from bullies and teaching him how to swim; the love of Teresa (Janelle Monáe) in providing Chiron dinner and an extra bed whenever his mother isn’t up to the job; the love of Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) in whisking Chiron to a beachside rendezvous that will change both of their lives forever; and, eventually, the love of Paula (Naomie Harris), in trying to atone for a lifetime of parental neglect that she knows, deep down, cannot be completely forgiven.
The great tension in Moonlight is how nearly all of these acts of kindness are counterbalanced by acts of enormous cruelty—sometimes by the exact same individuals—and it is in these moments that the film itself becomes Chiron’s guardian angel, always perched over his shoulder, regarding him as a scared, vulnerable child of God who demands dignity and respect but who, through a series of genetic accidents beyond his control, is consigned to a life of fear and dehumanization from which, at the end of the film, he is still struggling to be freed.
And yet he is a man and he deserves to be loved, and as he settles in for tea with his long-lost friend Kevin, we are given reason to hope that he may have finally found himself after a lifetime of being lost. While we cannot know precisely how he might proceed in righting the ship of himself, we can take some comfort in the fact that Chiron, while fictional, is a rough composite of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney—two men who grew up in similarly harrowing circumstances—surrounded on all sides by drugs, poverty and despair—yet who somehow survived, persevered and went on to make the best picture of 2016.