i may not be the right person to opine on this subject, however, as someone who entertains the things that coalesce inside them, i can’t ignore when something comes to me, not piecemeal, but in one chunk, as if the sculptor only had to tap the marble once & the figure in his mind appears, sinew, cavities, definition & all. So i guess what i am saying is this is one of those moments where it must be said, whatever that means.
This essay contains spoilers about the film Moonlight.
The other day i watched the new Oscar winning movie Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins. A film that doesn’t overwhelm with big names, nor is it director by & a director who makes big budget movies that visually impact, then fizzle out before your popcorn box is empty & people already begin to anticipate the next one. No, Jenkins makes real films, about real problems that take place in lives not too dissimilar from what his films portray— & so, how i came to pick this movie & what it taught me about myself, which i had not thought myself culpable of, is evidence of how important such films are in our fast paced, consumer society.
i finished all my jobs early Tuesday, & thought i’d treat myself to an afternoon film. i have little time for watching movies, busy see— hardly ever watch them, so don’t have a watch-list, though IMDB does, kindly store one for me in its vaults. What to watch though? i had read the headlines from the Guardian’s coverage of the Oscars & learned of Moonlight’s triumphs at the Oscars. Other than this i knew only the blurb on IMDB
: A chronicle of the childhood, adolescence and burgeoning adulthood of a young black man growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
& seen the image of a black kid on the poster, which if i’d looked closer, i’d have realized was the protagonist, ‘Little’ or Chiron as a boy, adolescent & man.
From this, paucity of information, i jumped to a ridiculous, unconscious conclusion: this is probably a film about them rappers they have nowadays, or summat like that— i hadn’t realized this at the time, but my brushing it aside implied this. So i lined up another film, Mud by Jeff Nichols, because i know i like Nichols’ films— a fitting title for such a silly person such as myself. However, while making my cup of coffee, i thought
what is it about Moonlight that has rendered this bias decision?
& had my epiphany
: due to a dim-witted, aesthetic judgement, falsely brought about from reading a short blurb & seeing a single image, i have reduced the film to a one dimensional production about rap music & a culture i have no affiliation with, which may not be the case at all.
So i backed myself up & switched my choice to maybe prove my self wrong.
This was a pre-conceived, unrealized, stigma but also, a detrimental form of xenophobia at the least— probably even a form of racism; i wouldn’t quarrel with that. This is how i feel about my unconscious action. i couldn’t help but wonder if even the best of us are culpable of xenophobia at some level of our character, if only because we haven’t ventured there to that level to probe ourselves? i am certain you can think of examples for yourselves. i have a few.
There was one in the news recently— Robert Kelly, the South Korea expert, during a BBC interview was interrupted when his two children burst into the room & their mother hurried in after them bundling them out. The Guardian published an opinion piece titled something like What does it say about those of us who saw a nanny? Some people had jumped to the conclusion that she must have been their nanny; must be right, she’s Asian & he is white.
One of the worst culminations of this kind of ignorance, was something i experienced firsthand when i took my wife to England for a visit. Many passersby assumed she was a Thai bride trying to get her mitts on a Visa. So what if she was? However, my wife isn’t Thai, she is Korean, very different; not that they’d ever thought to notice that— they just see slightly more ovate eyes, saber hair & golden skin & the inner light bulb pings with their assumption. In fact, my wife has no desire to live in England, hates the food & climate, can’t blame her. & seeing her linking arms with my father, well geeeezzuuus, they assumed (there’s that awful word again) the stereotype of the lonely, gut ridden, aged man who must have travelled to Thailand one year, had himself a time & purchased himself a pretty little bride, which of course is far from the reality— my wife loves my father, her father left when she was young, isn’t a very nice man, so for her to have someone fatherly in her life, is a sort of completion. But people, with their judgements; i was very disappointed with my country, it was a shameful display of ignorace. Their malignant judgements are the reason i can’t even consider a life in England with my wife; i am sure you all know about Brexit & the spiteful behaviour toward other races in Britain that has taken root. i took solace in my wife being unawares of this vile stigma held by British people. What does it say about us to carry these aversions, to jump to these conclusions? i can only speculate & be sorely disappointed & disapproving of their stigmas & people’s selfishness.
So, in general, i don’t feel closed off from the troubles of others, directly, yes, i am not interrupted in my daily life by the traumas & difficulties of others much, black people in particular— i am surrounded by Koreans everyday however. Anyone who knows me would say i am not an unconscionable fella & that i am affected by the suffering of others & a sense of incorrigible guilt hangs over me: that i don’t know how to help in a meaningful way, simply because of the overwhelming amount of suffering.
i am familiar with the black lives matter movement, i sympathize with the struggle of black people in America. i should know better than to make stupid aesthetic misjudgments. What’s worse is i wouldn’t have made this aesthetic judgement if it was a film about African child soldiers, this sort of discrimination did not crop up when i watched Beasts of no Nation. & if there were a film on the Syrian civil war there’d be no aesthetic problem to mull over unconsciously or otherwise. Likewise Iraq or Afghanistan, so why this People?
i assumed that, any film about a black man, from Miami, growing up through the 80’s up to the present day, could not pull at my heartstrings, even though those heartstrings are there. How wrong i was.
Here come more spoilers.
Chiron is homosexual. This is of course a huge problem for him growing up in the tough, impoverished & predominantly male dominated streets of 80’s & 90’s Miami. As a boy, those around him know what he is, but he doesn’t. He has to come to understand what it is that makes him different; how this alters the balance of his position in that society; how it alienates him; how it affects his relationships with people who are, on the whole, conditioned to find his sexual orientation an anomaly. So, much like any homosexual i suppose.
What had caused my very deep rooted, aesthetic bias? Why could i not foresee a film detailing the struggles of a gay black man? i can only speculate. Perhaps Hollywood’s misrepresentation of black people in films throughout my life, the incessant portrayal of them as macho, drug pushers, pimps, gangsters etc. The media, conditioning me to assume a generalization about black men in cineam. Largely, the fault of my own inconsideration & presumptuousness about the quality of black cinema because of associating all black cinema with rap music & violence, & so this aesthetic & cultural lack of appeal, had me project a generalized critique for all artistic portrayals of black men in cinema; so that a character like Chiron, his problems, remained something so remote as to not even register as possible.
But, egg on my face— Jenkins’ film has thankfully revised me to understand a little better the diverse potential for a black person’s character in cinema & in the wider world, especially from lower income communities in America. So i must thank Jenkins for inverting all of the overused stereotypes of the black man in cinema & for offering us fresh perspectives. i can never empathize nor do i claim to understand, nothing of the sort, i am far from this from that struggle & i find it insulting for me to say i get it, but it has opened dialogue with myself to stop my jumping to conclusions. An important step in learning anything remote from our experience.
i know about the poverty, crime & hardship, the history, but that there could be gay black men struggling with their identity, never dawned on me. Being from a lower middle class, white washed town in rural England, i didn’t have many black friends. i think i can count the amount of black (& foreign) kids in my school on one hand— yes, i think there were 5 or 6, if my memory serves. One black lad lived near to me & we played computer games together. But i never knew if he felt marginalized, he was just my pal, i never thought about his skin colour.
Moonlight, taught me more still about myself (spoilers ahead)
— the death of Juan when Chiron is still a boy, is dealt with in a curious way. The film transitions from Chiron’s boyhood to his High School years, with a sharp cut, a blank screen & the title Chiron.
We learn of Juan’s death in passing, while Chiron is talking to his mother about how Juan’s girlfriend Teresa is holding up— an almost throwaway detail. That’s it. No flashback, no tragic death scene, no funeral with distraught black woman hurling themselves to a rain sodden grave plot. No fists thump the ground in angry desire for revenge. We don’t see his loved ones mourn him at all. Not a single detail as to how or why, not even insinuations as to who was involved or present when he died. Juan is an important character too, he imparts wisdom, he nourishes him physically & mentally, he embodies the inversion of the stereotypical drug pushed & explains to the young Chiron that he may not know what he is now, but he’ll know when he knows & that he doesn’t need to know right now, a speech Chiron needs to hear from someone. When we meet Chiron as Black in his adulthood, he looks a lot like Juan & has even followed his occupational hazard. Juan is also quite likable. If we think right, we realize that his life, born into a Cuban immigrant family, suggests his journey hasn’t been strewn with promise & opportunity.
Juan takes it upon himself to be a fatherly shoe-in, for the fatherless Chiron, despite the hypocrisy of his profession, & moreover, that he sells drugs to Chiron’s mother thus, by equivocation, he is the catalyst for her deterioration as a suitable mother to Chiron, a mother he so desperately needs.
So you’d think his death would be a counterpoint in the film.
i was puzzled by this choice. It dawned on me soon after though that the absence of any development spoke volumes: in that environment this sort of fatality was commonplace. It would be the easy choice to enlarge upon his death; by inverting this Jenkins does something unexpected. In addition, the death of a drug dealer makes little impact on society, he is small fry; it doesn’t glorify in any way, or give focus to the fate of those in that profession. The emotional pain of loved ones becomes internalized, as if it were expected, as if they should know better than to get involved with someone who was bound to end up in a box early on in life. People have to survive, to push on with the bruise of the loss, silently. That these sorts of deaths are overlooked by the wider society. That though they may be drug dealers they were still people whose options are so threadbare that untangling themselves from the knot of poverty lead to one career choice & one only. It also casts a digit at the viewer & society: without the gratuitous, graphic death scene, which we are so desensitized to anyway, without the visual push thrust at us, we are unlikely to be impacted & so overlook the emotional gravity of their death on the people who loved them, just like we do everyday. It is a very smart narrative feature that should evoke more consideration, yet i fear it probably doesn’t. It isn’t full of the usual hyperbolic drama & effrontery of Hollywood.
The fading out of Juan, made me reconsider something i had done of late, quite without realizing. A childhood pal of mine, recently lost a close friend of hers. Only a couple of years ago she lost another close friend of hers. i knew both her friends, in passing, i come from a small town, so you always sort of know these people. But the difference in my reaction was noticeable: of her first friend’s death i knew no details about how they died, so i remained quiet; i don’t speak with my friend often, but it’s one of those English things— when you see each other you drink & chat like old times & yet years can elapse without a word.
When her friend died recently, i learned of the details as it made national news: what happened was of course tragic, she was only 31, pretty & successful. The details of her death were peculiar, an very unlikely thing to befall a person, especially in England— a one in a million type thing, graphic & shocking.
After learning the events i couldn’t erase the image of how she died out of my mind, it really affected me. i messaged my friend, to console her & offer my condolences. i didn’t realize what i’d done until after i watched Moonlight & this whole essay started to form in my mind: that i had reacted more directly with the details of the event of a death than without them, when the details should have been of no consequence to my reaction & i should have, after both deaths, contacted my friend & offered my condolences. The parallel to Juan’s death is not exacting, however it suggests the same response: with more details, our response is intensified, more noticeable.
What is it about the details? Why do they prompt us to react with more emotional intensity, even urgency?
It seems to me that the graphic element of a circumstance leaves us shocked & encourage us to sympathize more with those directly affected. We are on the whole, unaccustomed, and unprepared to confront such tragedies; they don’t happen, thankfully, with clockwork regularity, which we are more tuned to. Therefore, when we hear the details we are more prone to put ourselves in the bereaved person’s shoes.
It seems to me it shouldn’t be like this, perhaps another product of a too secular, insular society, but i wouldn’t like to bet money on anything.
i hope, after writing this, i am inundated with people telling me that they are not like this & that on the whole, people are capable of being sympathetic without the unnecessary incidentals. If not, i hope you contact any friend who is suffering from the loss of a loved one, even if you don’t talk all that much. That people don’t have the sort of unregistered stigma as i had. In addition, that you won’t be too quick to judge the book by its cover; you just might learn something important from it.
& to tie everything up, i think it is important to stress that we’re never really done working on & improving ourselves, in every facet of our character; you never know what needs correction in your attitudes if you don’t keep a vigilant eye on the mutations of your character against multiple experiences. i suppose gnothi seauton is still relevant, except we can add that knowing yourself can increase your knowing of others, a little better.