Race Matters

'I breathed a sigh of relief': Runnymede staff review Moonlight

Following its success at the Academy Awards, Runnymede staff give their take on Moonlight, a coming of age drama exploring of black male sexuality in 1990s Miami.

It’s hard to know what to say about Moonlight that hasn’t already been said. It’s a visually arresting, heartrending, and uplifting consideration of homosexual desire, the constraints placed by family and community, and, as the sum of all those parts: masculine identity. I suppose the latter theme caught me most. In a way I hadn’t yet seen, the film walks you through all the contortions young men make to become ‘men,’ cataloguing all the things lost in that process.
 
Dr Malachi McIntosh, Project Consultant

Moonlight has left a permanent mark on me. I find it a truly impressive and complete work of art. Its many elements - a clear, segmented structure; long, lingering shots; highly contrasting light with uncompromisingly dark skin tones – are all marshalled so consistently to represent the interior lives of the characters. A special mention goes to its eloquent score by Nicholas Britell, which seems to speak the inchoate words of the central character, Chiron. Meanwhile, the film’s emptied script allowed me to listen to the long silences Barry Jenkins’ direction insists upon, and I found it hard not to cry in the final redemptive scenes.  

Above all, it reminds me of a not-oft-talked-about aspect of being socialised by a society and culture that rejects you. That as black people, we are somehow unknowable, that we exist in 2-dimensional shapes as `thug’ or `drug dealer’ and that we cannot claim the sensitivity or complexity of `normal’ humanity.  Born in England and coming into young adulthood in the 1980s, I have lived a version of race relations which did not have the no dogs, no blacks, no Irish open hostility of my parents’ generation, but instead, went underground, transmuted its hate into the warm words of `equal opportunities’ and ‘diversity`.  So much of my experience is under-expressed and I have the habit of being ignored. This film, for me, expresses the confidence of a millennial generation of black subjects who claim, embrace and display all of the complexity, sensitivity, nuance and paradox of their humanity, without self-consciousness or apology. Watching Moonlight, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

Carol Sidney, Office Administrator

Even in Britain we can see how attitudes in our schools, workplaces and media are informed and influenced by Hollywood stereotypes of black men. So the portrayal of black American men in Moonlight as defined by drugs and criminality or homophobia could have been stereotyping. But instead, as the main characters come to terms with their masculinity, sexuality and relationships, we re-imagine our experience of the film’s narrative and realise that drug abuse, violence, homophobia and educational disadvantage are not determining or defining experiences, but just a background.  There was a sense that Chiron’s choice of drug dealing was a way of him dealing with his sexuality, the violent abuse he received and his relationship with his mother. The implication was that he could resolve these issues together, or not at all. The setting for Moonlight’s central characters was a reality for many young black men in the 1990s, and still is today. But rather than trading in negative stereotypes Moonlight, helped by slow-pacing, wonderful and understated acting, scoring and cinematography, shows how navigating adolescence, masculinity and sexuality operates in a context of racial inequalities.

Dr Omar Khan, Director

Moonlight is original, intense, and challenges perceptions and stereotypes of black men, sexuality, parenting and role models. It wasn't an uncomfortable movie to watch, however; it was thoughtful and sweet. But did it deserve an Oscar? Politically, I can see why it was important for Hollywood to send a message both internally, following accusations of whitewashing, and outwardly to a racist, sexist and homophobic President Trump. And from a cultural point of view, the topic of a black young man wrestling with his sexuality in an area dominated by uber-masculine black men was extraordinarily original and moving. But the script wasn't very good - although probably offset by fantastic acting. The explanations between the gaps in the story were too brief, while the quiet intense moments were uncomfortably long. Those factors don't undermine the contribution of the film, but they do beg the question as to whether this particular movie should have been chosen for the winner.

Zubaida Haque, Consultant Researcher

I found the Academy Award-winning film powerful and moving. For me, one of the genius elements was how much of the story is hidden from the audience. I left the film wanting more and feeling slightly discontent. The sparse dialogue and significant jumps in timeline indicate that this was intentional. In his storytelling, director Barry Jenkins captures something of the reality of the protagonist’s experience, as if we were meeting him in real life. His directing style keeps the audience at a distance in the same way that the central character, Chiron, keeps the world at arm’s length. The film remains with me and continues to offer insights.

Farah Elahi, Research and Policy Analyst
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