A few weeks ago Moonlight won an Oscar. You probably heard about it. Or you probably heard more about the monumental disaster surrounding its announcement, which ended up overshadowing one of the most transgressive Oscar wins in recent history. It seems that, now that the dust has settled, it is time to look at why Moonlight is such a revolutionary piece of cinema deserving of the award that it picked up amongst all the confusion. More specifically a close examination of Moonlight reveals that, whilst wildly unconventional, it fits into an oeuvre of films that portray a topic most people don’t really talk about, and a topic important to confront in our modern world of Facebook friend collectors: loneliness.

The cinema of loneliness is a well-respected and unexpectedly fruitful sub-genre of cinema. Whilst loneliness may seem a mundane and necessary component of typical human experience, cinema frequently transforms this apparently uninteresting theme into landmark statements, wringing out fascinating explorations of the psychology of isolation. Moonlight is one such film, a recent addition to a collection including the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (1964), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). These films all centre around a single essential component: an individual’s inability to connect with their surroundings. In each case the protagonist is a misfit among people and places with which they have been repeatedly told they should be easily able to forge connections. In order to comprehend Moonlight’s suitability to be aligned with these three films, it is necessary first to explore how they each portray loneliness in their own narratives.

Taxi Driver is a film rooted “in the very earthbound context of the madness of a lonely, barely coherent individual who cannot make sane associations between the distorted fragments of what he sees.”[1] Travis Bickle’s distorted perception of reality means he can’t associate with anyone on even the most basic meaningful level. Il Deserto Rosso portrays a young woman with a child who begins an affair with her husband’s business partner in an effort to escape her psychological neuroses. She sees herself as trapped in an industrialised, alienating environment that has no real connection to nature, which it has destroyed with pollutant-riddled petrochemical plants. Solaris’s main character is plagued by grief long after the loss of the woman he loves. He is reunited with her when sent to a sentient planet that recreates her from his memories, in an effort to communicate and understand the humans who are invading it. What Moonlight brings to this canon is a portrayal of loneliness that is recognisable, relatable, and highly affective. The film overcomes the difficulty of realising loneliness visually, resonating at a level that allows the audience to tap into a common sense of isolation felt by many. By exploring the existential implications and emotional instabilities inherent to loneliness, these films suggest another driving factor: love. Love is, they suggest, what humans desire most when confronted with total isolation.

Focusing on Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), in his brief infatuation with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), sees an opportunity to escape the isolation of his predominantly nocturnal and physically confined life. The idea of her affection overwhelms Travis and he naively takes Betsy to a viewing of a pornographic movie, giving her a glimpse of the world as he sees it. While Travis doesn’t seek sexual gratification from these movies, their distorted and voyeuristic depictions of physical intimacy, which he mistakenly views as normal in wider society, fascinate him. Lacking the ability to discern these images from reality, he greatly offends Betsy and her rejection forces Travis further into his shadow world of intense introspection and self-construction.

In next assuming the character of a psychopath who plans to kill a presidential candidate, a task in which he is unsuccessful, Travis shows that he craves gratification. In this case he desires acceptance into some form of countercultural social movement through fighting against ‘The Man.’ In his desperation for recognition he assumes another new persona, one of a hero who saves Iris (Jodie Foster) from her life as an underage prostitute by killing her pimp. But, as Robert Kolker explains, “the recognition he gains for gunning down a mafioso and freeing a young runaway from a brothel, is simply ironic, the result of other people’s distorted perception, and in no way changes the central character of his inability to understand himself or his world.”[2] The return of Betsy at the close of the film, and with her the possibility of romantic intimacy and love, signals the dreamy wistfulness of his aspirations. That he meets her gaze in the rear-view mirror symbolises Travis’s tendency to reflect upon himself through other’s perceptions in order to conform to their expectations. Building on the earlier scene in which Travis infamously separates himself into two and asks “you talkin’ to me?”,[3] the audience sees that the existential crisis of identity Travis undergoes is ultimately caused by his loneliness, and acknowledges that love and intimacy are seen, by Travis at the very least, as the way out.

Il Deserto Rosso provides a more direct insight into the effects of the neuroses-inducing impact of loneliness. The hysteria of the main character, Giuliana (Monica Vitti), is, in several instances, tempered by the direction of the camera, where the franticness of her demeanour matches that of the camerawork in an attempt to visually embody her loneliness and impose it onto the audience. In trying to reconnect with the world around her she begins an emotional, and briefly physical, affair with Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris) that provides ephemeral respite from the anxieties surrounding her feeling of belonging in the toxicity of the new chemical-industrial age.

In one scene Giuliana, Corrado, her husband, and three relative strangers to the film’s narrative embark on a trip to a riverside shack. There they joke, drink, and throw around sexual innuendos; being part of this small group soothes her. She dances and the camera pans around with her as the axis (see image below). Her focused and energetic motion on the one hand reflects her feeling of belonging in this small and strange community of people, and on the other the constant energy of her neurotic mind, anxious and fretful. It is in this moment that whilst Corrado seems like the answer to her hysteria, this solution proves hollow as she does not truly love him. Her salvation instead comes in the form of her innocent young son, as she realises the risk posed to him by the pollution that the new forms of economy are bringing. In remarking on a bird and it’s safety in not flying too close to the toxic plumes of the factory, the audience see her begrudging acquiescence to the new environment of the modern age but hints at the possibility of her educating her son about its perils.

Solaris, undoubtedly an alienating film for first-time audiences, unpacks the remedy for loneliness in an exploration of the nature of love itself. In the pseudo-resurrection of the love of his life, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) finds himself deluged with questions of her existence and its impossible corporeality. Harï (Natalya Bondarchuk) is an almost-too-perfect replication of his wife who, a decade earlier, took her own life. After ten years of bitter loneliness without her, Kris is terrified by this identical spectre and the impact it will have on his psyche. Her permanent attachment to him forces him to jettison her into space, only to wake up next to her the following day, trapped in a cycle of reunion and bereavement.

Her company replaces his long loneliness; here he is taken from one extreme to the other. In seeing the pain she is causing Kris, the new Harï, in an act which mirrors her real predecessor, asks to be killed. This pushes Kris towards the true solution to loneliness: he realises that being with her is all that matters. While the other astronauts leave, Kris stays, festooned in recreations of his memories, gifts from the planet of Solaris. While we do not see Harï, the implication is that Kris has chosen his memories of her, his memories of belonging and love.

Moonlight follows these patterns of the balance between loneliness and love, but in a gripping humanistic setting, by addressing a neglected identity in the cinema: the gay black man. Through its heartbreaking and at times uncomfortably honest portrayal of loneliness, ostracisation, and love; it handles its context and subject matter with resonant bravery and beauty. Following the story of Little/Chiron/Black (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) as he grows from child to adult, the narrative concurrently portrays his growth in the terms of his identity. The discovery and consideration of his own sexuality, his choice, or perhaps lack thereof, of future, and small, seeming momentary relationships that manage to buoy him slowly through crucial, defining portions of his life, all help to formulate an organic portrayal of his life far-removed from the pretentiousness of similar cinematic tales such as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).

Little’s early relationship with Juan (Mahershala Ali) is pivotal to his life. Juan discovers Little as he hides from a group of boys bullying him. Though he adheres to a common stereotype ordained upon black characters in realist cinema, Juan is an appropriation of this unfortunate consignment, emboldened in his difference to and comparison with its past iterations. This is at its most transparent in his forging of a father-son relationship with Little. After their initial meeting, Juan returns to his home in a bid to teach him how to swim. In a scene with images rich in symbolic connotations of baptism, he simultaneously ordains him into the church of self-definition and self-reliance. Teaching him how to float, how to breathe, and how to move through the water connotes his coaching of Little to survive in an environment that resists his natural identity, to negotiate his environment in order to be his authentic self instead of letting others define his experience in life

With only two connections in his life: to his increasingly distant and emotionally abusive mother, and to Kevin (Jaden Piner) – the character he will come to love –the rare interactions the audience witnesses epitomise Little’s dilemma as a child, that he’s not what other’s expect him to be. But Juan, on the other hand, is sincere in teaching Little his second lesson, that “at some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”[4]

Soon after comes the revelation of Little’s mother being a customer of Juan’s, and the directing of the camera begins to fixate on Chiron. This continues throughout the film in prolonged, slow-motion zooms, the camera almost staring at Chiron’s thinking and his dwelling within his own thoughts, visually distinct and detached from those around him. The camera captures a fascination with how he doesn’t fit in. If it’s him observing other children locked in a game of football, staring at his mother after she begins her descent into drug addiction, the camera uses him, and him alone, as the focal point. In emphasising his disconnection from those around him, with an inquisitive yet almost vacant look, the audience can palpably feel his loneliness, his desire to understand it, and by extension, a chance to remedy it.

His mother and others in the community surrounding him sense this aloofness and mistake it for some sort of outright strangeness. Throughout the first third of the film, Little is constantly referred to as strange or weird. This verbally defines his outsider status and results in his prolonged loneliness and ostracisation from being accepted as part of a wider black community. From this comes a spontaneous and yet endearing moment in which Little asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?”[5] What follows is a slight pause, Juan responds as if he is a parent of a young child asking where babies come from. This parallels way Little perceives his relationship with Juan: he is a father figure to him. In this he then becomes a beacon of gay acceptance in the film. After explaining what the word means, Little asks if he himself is a faggot. Juan explains: “no, you’re not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.”[6] Juan once again reinforces this lesson of self-definition and acceptance, that the terms “gay” and “faggot” are not synonymous. These points, while difficult for Little to digest at a young age, will be an important focal point for the creation and recreation of himself as he grows.

As the audience is introduced to the second third of the film, titled “Chiron”, they are reintroduced to a now teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders). He divides himself between avoiding bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), spending time with the now deceased Juan’s former girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and trying to live with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who is now addicted to crack and prostituting herself in order to fund this addiction. He longs for the acceptance of his peers and clings to the memories of Juan: Chiron is at the height of his loneliness. Notably detached from the community, he is skittish, scrawny, and scared by those around him. A significant moment occurs as Chiron, high up in the school building and behind a metal mesh, watches Terrel and his gang in order to avoid encountering him. He is alone in the space, panicked but safe for the moment. The only one who openly invades the space of his isolation, calling back to their earlier fights as boys, is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). In invading this space, Kevin breaks Chrion’s unrelenting loneliness and isolation, freeing him from his anxiety. In the second hint as to Chiron’s sexuality, he becomes notably more relaxed and slightly more articulate. His nervousness melts away in the presence of Kevin and the relationship between them, present during their childhood, seems to have been maintained.

A few nights later, after being confronted by Terrel, Chiron makes his way to the beach where Juan taught him how to swim. The location is clearly a place of nostalgia and safety for him, a memory of a meaningful connection. Once again, alone and isolated under the moonlight, his isolation is disrupted by Kevin. Offering a blunt as they discuss Kevin’s nickname for him, Black, they move to their ambitions. In what would be a typical scene for a teen movie, these small moments really resonate with the theme of loneliness and manifest as the extension of an olive branch. Kevin’s acceptance of and connection to Chiron’s repressed emotional side finally allows Chiron to find common ground with another person within his immediate community, much to his surprise. Just after this, the two kiss and Kevin gives Chiron a handjob. In this recreation of the clumsy initial sexual encounters of teenagers, the relationship becomes much more naturalistic for a viewer. Once Kevin drops off Chiron at home, the latter behaving coy and giddy, the audience observes an awakening for Chiron, suddenly comfortable and carefree in his ordinarily stifled and sequestered environment.

What follows is a brutal rebuke to the optimism of the previous sequence. Kevin must physically assault Chiron in order to maintain his own social standing, and is forced to punch him repeatedly. The camera once again lingers on Chiron as the focal point, gradually zooming in on him. His torment at the literal hand that was so recently accepting of him and his sexuality is psychologically devastating for Chiron. The camera emphasises the injuries Chiron is enduring in his last bid to gain acceptance and standing, when he’s told to stay down by his tormentors. Symbolically this whole scene shows his young, promising connection with Kevin being broken. The acceptance he thought he had from one person is now appropriated by the community from which he is isolated: it is used to beat him into submission, leaving him vulnerable to further assault from his usual bullies.

Chiron, now seemingly broken, turns to violence. With this transition, the camera now embraces Chiron; his heavy, seemingly confident strides through the school corridors the next day are followed intently by the camera’s sway. It is energetic and emboldened, filling the audience with a certain anticipation. Shedding his previously skittish and meek exterior, Chiron walks into the classroom, picks up a chair and slams it into Terrel. Here he is using violence to reject both Terrel’s violence and life he is trying to live under his persecution. Perceived as a random act by the authorities, a bid to assert his dominance and conform to what is expected of him, he is soon arrested. Nobody around him realises that this is not just a bully pushing someone too far: Chiron is at breaking point, his loneliness finally getting to him. The life Chiron wants and needs, the identity that is natural to him, has repeatedly been physically and psychologically rejected. In this act he rejects Juan’s lesson of self-definition but after betrayal from the first person he has romantic feelings for, the audience can’t help but wonder: “is he really to blame?”

The final third of the film, entitled “Black”, opens with Chiron, now having embraced the nickname Kevin gave him as a fleeting reminder of his past life, living a similar life to that of Juan. He has Physically bulked up and his appearance is markedly juxtaposed to that of his teenage self. Frequent calls from his mother annoy him as she now desperately craves the connection she deprived him of as a child. More social, and having adapted to what society tells him he should be instead of embracing his individual identity, Black is still often willingly isolated, often shown within the confines of his apartment or car.

It is at his apartment that Kevin, for the last time, invades his solace, forcing him out into the open. Picking up the phone and hearing Kevin’s voice causes an instant reaction in Black, reverting him to the shy, reserved persona of his teenage years. It is this interaction that spurs Black to consider his loneliness and his lack of meaningful interaction with anyone. After reconciling with his mother, as much as he considers possible, he makes his way back to Miami. Upon arrival he locates and enters the diner where Kevin works; it is here that the remarkable efforts in the camera’s lingering, slow-zooming focus on Little/Chiron earlier in the film really pays off.

After getting Cuban food from Kevin – a call back to that distant memory of Juan – Black gazes at the diner’s front door as Kevin goes into the kitchen. With the same style that the camera used earlier on to emphasise Chiron’s separation and stillness compared to those around him, the technique of gradually zooming is now inverted in purpose: the shot focuses on nothing, no character, just empty space at the front of the diner. In reuniting with Kevin, even after his betrayal, a palpable sense of belonging is evoked through the camerawork. The camera is no longer using Chiron as a focal point because he’s assimilated into an environment on the fringes of the camera’s focus. The camera intends to capture the story of the genuine loneliness inherent in living as a gay, black man. Black’s rejection of this part of himself and his adoption of society’s preordained appearance, role, and form of masculinity means the camera strays from him; it has lost its focus as he is refusing to accept himself.

With the furtive flirting between Kevin and Black while talking in the diner, dodging the real reason for their reuniting, the two end up at Kevin’s house, neighbouring the very beach on which they first connected. It is here that the audience sees Black assert his apparent comfort in his own identity, even when interrogated by Kevin:

Kevin: Who is you man?

Black: Who, me?

Kevin: Yeah nigga. You. Them fronts? That car? Who is you Chiron?

Black: I’m me man. Ain’t trying to be nothing else.

Kevin: So you hard now?

Black: I ain’t say that.

Kevin: Then what?

[pause]

Kevin: Look. I’m not trying hem you up. Just…I ain’t see you in a decade.

Not what I expected, none of it. Not good or bad. Just not what I expected.

Black: Well, what did you expect?

[pause]

Kevin: You remember the last time I saw you?

[pause]

Black: For a long time, tried not to remember. Tried to forget all those

times. The good… the bad. All of it.

Kevin: Yeah. I know.[7]

Kevin can see through the façade of Black’s masculinity – one he has been conditioned to see as correct – but Black is aware of this too. Whilst Black may not be what Kevin expected, he almost acknowledges that he has assumed this hyper-masculine front because of past traumas, being violently rejected by someone to whom he felt a genuine connection and hoped would accept him. Rebuilding his life meant having to diverge from the sincerity of his identity as a teenager. Embracing the role society, as far as he perceives, wants him to have was an escape from the loneliness he could no longer endure.

But Kevin once again provides a chance at the acceptance that was cruelly snatched from him. His revelation that Kevin is the only person he has ever had a sexual encounter with shows that Black, while significantly affected by Kevin’s betrayal, does indeed love him. In the more comfortable and safe confines of Kevin’s apartment, Black finally feels as if he can reveal this. Fortunately, Kevin does indeed embrace this and the camera’s slow-zooming focus returns. But here, instead of just focusing on Chiron, the two are captured in an embrace, Black’s head resting on Kevin’s shoulder. A repetition of their posture and position on the beach as teenagers, it provides hope for a rekindling of their relationship which was so abruptly halted earlier. Moreover, this represents a chance for Black to embrace at last his identity as a gay black man, to find acceptance and connection with others, and to renounce his self-imposed exile and denial of himself. In the closing scene, Juan’s lesson of self-definition echoes, just meters from the beach where it was first imparted.

In the rekindling of this relationship, and pairing Black and Kevin together in a close-up, Black is freed from his onscreen loneliness. This image resonates with the earlier images of him alone, the sole focus of the camera. The love he feels for Kevin has brought him out of this relationship with the camera. Whilst the likes of Taxi Driver, Il Deserto Rosso, and Solaris posit the importance of love and relationships, their characters are left in tragic positions: nearly attaining the potential for kinship around them, but always falling short. Within this canon, the fact that Moonlight takes in its stride the opportunity resolutely to resolve the issue of Little/Chiron/Black’s loneliness is a testament to its singular value as a film that does things differently. Moonlight itself breaks free: it breaks free of the confines of a cinematic output that has been propped up by its reliance on consistently repetitive formulae.

[1] Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (Oxford University Press, 2011): 231-232

[2] Ibid.

[3] Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese (Columbia Pictures, 1976)

[4] Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins (A24, 2016)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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