Entertainment, Film

Moonlight: A masterful meditation on race, sexuality and addiction

As a writer, sometimes a work of art, whether it’s music, a movie, play or painting, compels you to write in an inevitably futile effort to do it justice. Moonlight, directed and written by Barry Jenkins, is such a film.

It’s a work primarily concerned with transcending the past while being true to oneself and the social structures that stand in the way, particularly for a gay African-American from a broken home.

The film follows Chiron (pronounced shy-rone) through three phases of his life, played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, respectively.

i. Little

We first meet him as a child, or “Little”, as he’s then known, through the eyes of Juan, played by Mahershala Ali. You may recognize him from Netflix series House of Cards and Luke Cage.

After finding Little hiding out in a shed on his property, Juan takes him under his wing, serving as a father figure in the absence of his biological father. The audience discovers soon after that Juan is a crack dealer who sells to Little’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and her boyfriend.

Juan also gives the boy money out of apparent guilt and pity for feeding his mother’s addiction. He’s giving back to Little what he takes from his mother.

Chiron’s mother is emotionally abusive, calling her son a “faggot” in a scene that is muted, emphasizing the hurtfulness of the slur. The audience literally has to read her lips to figure out what she’s saying.

In the next scene, Little asks Juan what that word means, to which he responds that it’s a homophobic slur. “You can be gay, but don’t let anyone call you no faggot,” Juan says, providing Little with the emotional support and comfort his mother should be giving.

In the first part, Little appears at Juan’s house whenever he is distressed by his situation at home.

“There are black people all over the world and we need to stick together,” he advises Chiron. The rest of the film depicts the exact opposite, providing a glimpse into the internal struggles of the black community.

ii. Chiron

In the second act, we see Chiron, whose sexual orientation at this point is known throughout the community and his high school, bullied severely by fellow African-Americans. The bullies pressure Kevin (Andre Holland), Chiron’s secret lover, to beat him to a bloody pulp. Not wanting them to suspect that he too is gay, Kevin obliges.

Chiron doesn’t want to be a snitch on his lover, so he declines to press charges, taking matters into his own hands. In one of the film’s more difficult scenes to watch, he barges into school and breaks a chair over the lead bully’s head, for which he’s sent to juvenile detention.

iii. Black

When he emerges in the third act, Chiron has reinvented himself, starting a new life in Atlanta. He’s come full circle as a drug dealer referred to as “Black”. He’s now a symbol of rugged, heterosexual masculinity. He’s muscular and dresses with grills and a gold chain. He also has a crown on the dashboard of his car, as Juan did, from which he blares gangsta rap.

Without giving too much away, he’s reunited with Kevin, telling him “I’m trapped,” which is an apt summation of the film’s major overarching theme.

Take me to the river, drop me in the water

Water is a particularly potent symbol in Moonlight. Juan teaches Little to swim near the film’s beginning, solidifying his fatherly status.

More importantly, it’s where Chiron goes in the second act to escape his crack-addicted mother’s continual  abuse, which now includes pestering him for money, where he smokes his first blunt and has his first homosexual experience with Kevin. We also see Chiron dunk his head in ice water as a symbol of exasperation, both after Kevin beats him up and after he’s arrested for his vigilante justice.

The film’s title is also symbolic in this sense. Just as moonlight reflects on the water, so too does the past reflect on the present and future.  Moonlight also provides light in darkness, which is represented by Black’s reunion with Kevin in the third act.

Rich in symbolism and with excellent performances all around, Moonlight may very well be the best film I saw in 2016. It provides a powerful contrast to Marvel and Star Wars’ highly profitable, and I’ll concede often entertaining, explosion porn.


Conspiracy Theories, Film

Denial: An impressively nuanced depiction of Irving v. Lipstadt

I caught a screening of Denial yesterday, the dramatization of British author David Irving’s libel suit against Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt, and was quite impressed.

The film is largely based on Lipstadt’s account of the proceedings, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, so it is told from her perspective. She is played exceptionally by Rachel Weisz, while Irving is depicted by Timothy Spall, who the audience may recognize as Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films, or J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.

David Irving, author of some acclaimed works dealing with the Second World War from the German perspective had always been criticized for having a pro-Nazi bent. By the 1990s, however, he started engaging in full-scale Holocaust revisionism, denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, for instance, and speaking at white supremacist gatherings.

He sued Lipstadt after she called him a Nazi apologist, “falsifier of history” and “dangerous spokesperson” for Holocaust revisionism in her book Denying the Holocaust. As is pointed out in the film, Irving chose to file the lawsuit in the U.K. where Lipstadt would be put on the defensive, having to prove that what she said about him is true. In the U.S., Irving would have had to prove that he is a legitimate historian.

Though the film is told from Lipstadt’s purview, which is difficult to avoid since she won the trial, it doesn’t present Irving as a cartoonish villain.  He is a loving father, shown playing with his children in between meetings with Lipstadt’s legal team.

Nor is Lipstadt depicted as a flawless hero. In the film, she’s obstinate, repeatedly demanding Holocaust survivors testify against her lawyers’ wishes.

Ultimately, she doesn’t take the stand, nor does a survivor, but one of the film’s major tensions is Lipstadt coming to terms with the distinction between her work as a historian and the legal system.This tension is encapsulated in her relationship with a Shoah survivor who attends the trial and continuously asks Lipstadt to ensure their voices are heard.

Her lawyers, led by Anthony Julius, insisted that bringing Holocaust survivors to testify would make the trial about whether the Holocaust occurred when it should be about demonstrating Irving’s unsavoury worldview.

There is a view held by many civil libertarians, myself included, that prosecuting Holocaust denial only serves to draw attention to deniers’ repugnant views. However, this case is different, as Irving initiated the lawsuit, putting Lipstadt’s right to harshly criticize him under risk of censorship.

As in reality, the film’s Irving is highly articulate and scrupulous, keeping an entire library’s worth of diaries, which Lipstadt’s team pored over for Third Reich sympathies.

The film’s Irving is also gracious, offering to shake hands with  Julius, after the judge’s ruling, an example of what Hannah Arendt, herself a Holocaust survivor, called the “banality of evil.”

Towards the movie’s conclusion with the Judge Charles Gray’s ruling, the justice asks a question that represents one of the film’s key themes – What if Irving sincerely believes the Holocaust was a lie? Perhaps he’s an anti-Semite, but Lipstadt accused him of deliberately falsifying the historical record.

Ultimately, the judge ruled in her favour. The mistakes found in Irving’s work were not the result of simple errors or genuine conviction, but malicious intent rooted in anti-Semitism.

But this is a question that has always vexed me about Holocaust deniers – are they genuinely convinced that the Holocaust was exaggerated, or is denial merely a neo-Nazi recruiting tool?

With its nuanced approach, the film does a good job of bringing this question to light without providing a definitive answer.