50 Shades of Gay

That’s what I’d like people to think of Moonlight as. The color palette supplies, as one can preview in one of the posters for the film, a range of colors sharply defined. One might even call it 50 Shades of Blue, a play on the title (“In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) of the play the movie is based on. Anyhow, I do not say it ironically or insultingly, and I’d expect anyone who identifies as homosexual to take  the title of this post to mean that the movie reveals some of the nuances of life as a homosexual. That is part of what I mean by it, but I’ll explain more about that later. It is integral to understanding the reasoning behind the moniker I’ve applied, which is essentially that, if one does not separate cinema from the world in which it is created, one should come away with a lot less praise for Moonlight than it has received, responses that might even look like some of the backlash 50 Shades of Grey has gotten.

I’ll add the warning now that I will make specific references to different parts of the plot, so anyone who is triggered by spoilers probably shouldn’t read this review. I’ll also add in my reactions and thoughts on those plot points, which may spoil a first viewing for some.

The movie has been praised as a journey (a word which never fails to provoke me to laugh to myself) about a young black boy’s (Chiron) identity and his struggle to come to terms or so much as define it. By way of his encounters with other black males (Juan, a drug dealer, and Kevin, a childhood friend), we see that almost every male in the film is struggling with some portion, some missing piece of their identity. Even the males who play smaller roles aren’t sure of who they are or how to relate to others (two sides of the same conflict). I’m quite certain this is the center-point about which most modern cinema, and even art, oscillates. With Moonlight, identity for the characters is never clarified so much as helplessly accepted.

Juan, nicknamed “Blue” because he appeared that color in the moonlight to a woman in Cuba, is asked if his name is “Blue” by Chiron (also nicknamed “Little” and “Black”). Juan denies it but doesn’t offer any further definition; earlier on in the film he doesn’t even admit to Chiron that he’s a drug dealer. Chiron figures it out by himself, shortly before he asks if his mother does drugs and realizes the rest. Juan doesn’t express his identity to Chiron and when he catches the boy’s mother (Paula) getting high in a car, he can’t react as self-assured as a drug dealer would usually when ridding a selling spot of the fiends and drug addicts who might get high and thus invite cops to observe the place. Yet Juan goes on selling drugs until he dies, and it is probably right to say he was killed because of that life.

Kevin, a friend of Chiron, brags to him about getting detention because another student and him were caught having sex. The way he communicates the event is reminiscent of most of the braggadocio in rap. It is one of the more subtle occasions for viewing just how contingent the black male is on praise; sometimes he praises himself in the company of another person to give his ego the affirmation of another’s approval. Later he stimulates Chiron manually on the beach as the latter leans into him — the act follows a question about some of the unusual things Chiron does and smoking marijuana, and is followed by a silent ride home. This gives the characters a lot of time to get to know one another but neither has anything to express, suggesting mixed emotions about what they’ve just done. Towards the end of the film, he has that same collected but uncool persona, only now as an adult with a child and prison time behind him, the bragging is more restrained. It still, however, suggests he’s trying to keep up appearances, veiling a void.

In the tone of the seller that Juan has employed to sell at this spot, on the two occasions we hear him and Juan speak, the deference in Juan’s authority that he speaks with sounds like he is nearer to whimpering than speaking as boldly as the words he uses might suggest. “You know I’m out here” is repeated a few times, and each time it sounds like he’s begging for Juan’s approval, saying “You see I’m doing what you told me to do, don’t you?” His earnestness is more of a plea from someone who doesn’t know what else to do.

The black man with Paula sits down on the hood of the car to smoke a cigarette in silence when Juan is shaming then being shamed by Paula. He’s quietly accepted the situation he is in isn’t a good one, that he’s a drug addict and now his partner is in an altercation (much lighter than I’m sure it would have been in reality) with their drug supplier.

Chiron, the center of the story, is the most salient example of a confused male. There is no point in the film when the viewer is convinced that he is conscious of the reasons why he is doing something. we’ll take a look at his issues with identity as we go.

As a black man, some parts were hard to watch because of the fidelity to the confusion about manliness and manhood which one feels growing up without a father figure. Part of the allure of the movie, I think, is due to the fact that the movie depicts a discomfort we all feel in understanding what it is to be a person. But, focusing on what it means to be a black man specifically, the movie does accurately reveal a tenuous reliance young males have on older males which can quickly grow into a dependence. When Chiron first meets Juan, he doesn’t say a word for about a day, and he definitely doesn’t converse with him. Yet, days later, Juan comes home to Chiron sitting in a chair on the lawn.

This dependence is relatively to understand. As we grow up, we are being initiated into a world beyond our comprehension and we rely on those who look like us to transmit a perspective on how to be. This is one of the most fundamental conflicts that exists in a human being. And it is one by and large modern.

There is a lot of literature on the Enlightenment and the Scientific revolution, movements happening in or around the 17th century which sought to put human beings on solid ground by stationing all our knowledge in the verifiable. Centuries of this thinking has carried us to the present moment where we mostly deny the fruits of the past. Yes I am a traditionalist; no I am not going to bang that drum too much now. I only wish it to be clear that humanity has for about 400 years been trying to live without an emphasis on a large part of knowledge garnered from history. The tragedy might be lost on some, but, as I’ll explain, we are experiencing the consequences of such a tragedy.

Most, if not all, of the theories I remember learning about as an undergrad studying psychology placed a heavy importance on childhood and the experiences and developments that happened during those years. Everyone who is anyone, if asked to talk about themselves, will mention or at least reflect on what they experienced when they were younger. Why, then, is the modern unwilling to reflect on history the same way, to recall humanity’s youth?

Volumes of literature and articles that could fill a few hard-drives could explain why that is. But for the time being, I only ask the reader to accept that it is, to accept that the history was far more important to those who could only learn about the world by studying it. Even if you disagree with the theory I’ve outlined, at least that much you have to agree on. No psych major is reading volumes of Greek philosophy, or books about the fall of Rome, mythology from antiquity, or the Bible. It’s just not as important as it once was. People are reading more magazines and news articles — more writing concerned primarily with the present moment.

Those who studied the past had a better idea of what it mean to be a human. We, however, could burn all the modern literature on what makes us human and there wouldn’t be a cold toe across the face of the planet. But for all this literature, we’re given no greater resemblance of certitude or understanding. Even older films made just 40 or more years ago gave the impression in many cases that people knew what it was to be a person and what life is for.

Life is itself a mystery which is only solved once it’s despondency to some of our deepest questions are answered by doing and believing in a certain answer. The modern believes in no answer. For the fact we are thanked by a million movies about a young/middle-aged/old boy/girl/man/woman going on a journey somewhere or by means of some process. Most of the time there is plenty of driving and someone looking out a window or enjoying the breeze. I’m sorry, not most of the time, every time. From all the driving and traveling, one might think they in fact don’t want to find anything but to get lost.

Anyhow. What are they in search of? Their self. Irony aside, we can see just how unfruitful these journeys are if we took a sober look at them. That is why they usually end with someone basically accepting themselves as they already were in the beginning of the movie. The only, and I mean only, addition is their acceptance of who they were to begin with. Nothing else changes.

In Moonlight, this is precisely what transpires. All the conflicts of Chiron’s childhood and teenage years basically put him in jail far outside of Miami (I believe he goes to a juvenile center in Georgia). All the same, he ends up moving the Georgia and living there. By the time he’s an adult, now called “Black,” he ends up doing just what Juan did, selling drugs. Yea he’s gained some muscles and works out, sees his mom at a rehab and cries about the relationship they’ve had, but he is still struggling with how to relate to others and who he is exactly. I’ll note that there are at least 2 driving scenes featuring the exact aforementioned description on his way to this point.

One evening he gets a call from the Kevin and inviting him to his diner for some food. He doesn’t talk much on the phone and the next day gives what Kevin says some thought. Eventually he, hold on to your hats, drives down to Miami again and has a dinner Kevin prepares in what looks like an attempt by some college student in film school to make their own scene from “Chef’s Table.” I was almost laughing as it happened but tried to take it seriously.

One thing I’ll make note of is that the movie also captures the problems with communication for black males. Many of the times Chiron is spoken to by males, and even when Juan and one of his underlings talk to each other, eye contact is rare. There is a contrast to highlight between how Chiron’s mother on an occasion yells at him as a child, and Teresa (Juan’s girlfriend) speaks forthrightly but with respect.The movie actually showed the compensatory boldness of black females quite well. But with Chiron, in the “Little” segment (the opening third), doesn’t talk much at all. He’s clearly always watching, always paying attention, and dances as a form of expression. As a teenager, he keeps to himself and when Kevin raves about having sex and getting attention, he doesn’t have much to say either, he just listens.

As an adult, he’s speaking a lot more. But the reluctance is still there. Kevin sits down and, after not getting much of a word out of Chiron, he recites grandma rules: “Yo ass eat, yo ass speak.” This comment, some comic relief for the audience and Chiron, and wine help to open Chiron up and loosen the tension created by now speaking to the only person with whom he’s had a sexual encounter after so many years.

As he drives Kevin home, another aversion to conversation is made as Chiron avoids the question of where he’ll be sleeping that evening. Instead of answering, Chiron turns the music up. During the drive, Chiron also asks why Kevin is looking at him a certain way. The tension increases while the characters circumvent their sexual encounter.

Once at Kevin’s place, the conversation becomes much more candid although not without Kevin trying to explain how things are not perfect but good enough. We get to see Kevin’s grin quickly fall as he turns half his face away from the camera and Chiron. The question of identity is still in the air and both characters suggest they just are who they are, in so many words. Kevin isn’t buying it though. At the diner, he asks Chiron why he’s wearing gold fronts on his teeth .(These are as accurate a symbol as can be for the person Chiron is pretending to be –“fronting” is a slang for pretending and gold teeth carry as much implication of status and success as a whitened smile.)  Even as Kevin questions who Chiron is, he’s got half a smirk on his face, like he finds it funny that Chiron suddenly acts and looks this way.

Chiron eventually brings out the fact that he hasn’t been touched by anyone (sexually) since his experience with Kevin.THe film ends with Kevin cradling Chiron’s head the same way he did as he gave him during their sexual encounter.

So who are they in the end? Chiron still desires a feeling of pleasure and comfort that he felt by Kevin’s side when they were on the beach. Kevin has a kid but doesn’t get along with the mother — not uncommon among those men still looking for sexual pleasure instead of commitment, which is precisely what got Kevin detention back in high school.  And there is no third male to actually assess over the course of the film. Chiron does have a moment with one of his underlings wherein his authority is exercised similar to Juan earlier in the film — neither abuse their inferior, but their inferior knows they could easily be done away with, beaten or worse, if they make a mistake. You can hear that in their voices and see it in their eyes.

The only other males remotely near the center of the film are Juan (who is presumably killed) and Terrel(who is last seen recoiling in pain after Chiron hits him over the back with a chair). What conclusion can anyone thus make about the identities of these characters? Perhaps Terrel changes and becomes less of a bully, an outright optimist might say — more likely he goes on to brag about Chiron having to hit him with a chair, in class, behind his back, with some colloquial pejoratives as colorful as the film’s palette. Juan died — perhaps he made it to Purgatory.

Chiron and Kevin, however, end up in the position of their defining act. I suppose it is different because there isn’t a handjob. But that’s clearly not as important to Chiron as the embrace of another male. And that is the end. Nothing more happens after that. Nothing. We are given reason to believe Chiron, at least, you know, our protagonist, the one we’re really rooting for, accepts himself. Kevin will probably go on struggling with a sex addiction glorified by rap or struggling to be an active, drug-free, positive role model and father for his kid. But Chiron for sure ends up in the position he wanted to be in: one suggesting the acceptance he’s been waiting for, the embrace and understanding of another male who doesn’t bully him and holds him intimately, neither asking questions nor telling him who to be.

And THAT is what this generation truly desires. That is why we have college students and adults having sex with so many partners and quicker than ever, but still unhappy as hell as they tell others it’s no business what they do in their bedroom and their bodies are their own. That is why we have so much literature about what the self is and who we are as persons or people. And so on.

Thus, my biggest problem with this movie is that for all it’s accuracy about what goes on in the black community, it falls well short of inspiring any sort of change at a time when so much has been needed, especially in the black community. There is nothing anyone can learn from it except that we shouldn’t bully people or hide who we are. It is a movie that reveals the suffering of some to a much broader audience and then turns that into a form of entertainment — something to watch from a distance.

The same thing can be said of 50 Shades of Grey. From what I’ve seen in trailers, and from the fact that it is a man who is the sexually dominant character, I can safely assume the woman is mostly an introvert. Introversion has only, like plenty modern ailments, become a fad as of late. Chiron would be counted as an introvert too, and so would I. But what filmmakers are not understanding is that introversion is really about protecting the self from further punishment, shame, or any other form of displeasure and pain. It isn’t about having nice, kinky fantasies you need a billionaire to act out with you. It isn’t about needing to be held by a man and be accepted for what you loosely understand is homosexuality. The reality of these situations are not worth putting into film. And so they aren’t. Instead, what we get is something with a nice enough ending to make us cry with Moonlight, and something revolting enough to turn people on without repulsing them.

Writing for NY Times, A. O. Scott  ends his review with these words: “To be afforded a window into another consciousness is a gift that only art can give. To know Chiron is a privilege.” That last sentence should make anyone’s irony bone tingle like it went numb. Perhaps by now, some really have become numb to the irony of their views. It really is a privilege to “know” Chiron. More responsible use of language might suggest it is a privilege to “watch” Chiron. It is clear that everyone who knew him, insofar as he could be known, had a certain lack of privilege. The reality of the situation likely would have repulsed such people, but the movie cleaned a lot up. Juan probably would have had multiple girlfriends, a few of which would be preparing drugs or stacking cash somewhere in the house; cops might have came around a few times; he himself may have been harassed after being pulled over. Kevin’s coarse language describing his sexual encounter with another student would have been an almost daily rave that Chiron overheard or was a direct audience to. Chiron wouldn’t have been bullied by a few kids alone. Chiron might have even killed himself. A lot of this probably would have perturbed the feminists in the audience as well as those who would watch the black community get baptized in a fancy color palette.

Similarly, 50 Shades also has a foolishly narrow view of the actual potential for circumstances in the film have to go awry. Emma Green claims “It’s supposed to be hot when Christian has Anastasia in her most compromising positions; he finds intense pleasure in her pain.” Here we have the dual naivety of film and critic, and it should be plainly obvious that naivety about a such a harmful movie is a pernicious idea to allow others to affirm.

Like Moonlight, 50 Shades also renders confusion and then redresses it as some philosophical necessity bound for clarity. “At several points in the story, it’s unclear what Ana really wants from sex. But perhaps that’s the most complicated aspect of all: How do people know what they want, really?” Yes, what can people want, wonders the modern, with this activity people have been happily, ignorantly doing for so long? Green’s question follows concern about consent, which once more indicates how both movies have taken a real problem, cleaned it up, and made it entertaining. A woman who doesn’t know what she wants from sex is likely to either have no sex (in less liberated times, perhaps) or have sex she regrets. But, Ana from the film won’t get raped, she won’t end up in any situations with a man hunting for precisely the kind of woman she is, she is safe to explore these questions with a billionaire.

Green goes on to quote one paper written by a legal scholar. The important part I want to note is this:

The rather inescapable fact is that much of the misery women endure is fully “consensual.” … Put affirmatively, the conditions which create our misery—unwanted pregnancies, violent and abusive marriages, sexual harassment on the job—are often traceable to acts of consent. Women—somewhat uniquely—consent to their misery.

So which is it, consent or misery? It can’t be both and remain a cause for celebration. But that’s the reality of the situation, not the cinematic portrayal.

But at the end of it all, is another exploration. Green affirms another author shaming a part of the country who “doesn’t even have a basic education on sex.” Now that’s a riot. Green follows up this bold condescension of uneducated folk everywhere with the suggestion that this ignorance is exactly “why it’s so important to pay attention to the Fifty Shades fantasy.” Well, would you look at that. From a movie starring a woman without definitive motives for having sex, we can begin to learn “to seek out sexual encounters that are emotionally constructive and based on affirmative values of mutual respect, dignity, and care.” Here too, as with Moonlight, we are given the opportunity to explore a part of the self that supposedly no one prior understood.  I haven’t seen the ending of either 50 Shades film, so I can’t comment on whether the ending is acceptance, per se, but I’ve heard the trilogy ends with Ana and her superior marrying. So, yea, if that is true, it does end with acceptance: one accepting the kinks of the other and them beginning a married life (hopefully with shelves full of how to keep your sex life active now that you’ve done all that other shit).

Narrowing reality is Hollywood’s stock and trade. Sex sells, but so do lies. And we are a generation that accepts lies without so much as a question. Not all the time. But plenty of the time. Both 50 Shades and Moonlight are guilty of providing a false comfort by entertaining people with removing themselves from the realities they hide.

Concerning Moonlight, it might seem like a genuine, innovative portrait of the black community, or homosexual males, but the movie was good in every way that doesn’t count in the end. The color palette that deepens blues and blacks, which are also the nicknames of two of the male figures in the film perhaps to suggest that African Americans are black and blue, is well crafted. Bravo, marvelous symbolism. The dialogue reminded me of my own experiences with blacks — and I am very critical of dialogue, but dialogue here was far from subpar. The way the characters were shot showed just what a camera is supposed to show: the things you’re meant to see. Some directors could take a few notes there. But at the end of the day, in addition to narrowing reality, the movie misses the most vital element of cinema: a purpose. Much like modern life.

Writing about the higher education’s overproduction of literature by means of those studying to be writers, Elif Batuman says

The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books!

All those great shots, all those symbols and emotional scenes, all those beautiful colors — trapped in a mediocre movie.  I honestly did feel a lot was happening during the film which I knew personally, I’m a sucker for a decent color palette and a series of good shots. I didn’t hate the film. But the ending made it all something less than art, something less than true. And I have no interest in appreciating something purely because it is well done. So I wouldn’t strongly recommend it unless you are black or male. (More irony.)

One last note: I cannot speak too much further on the motivations that went into the film, but they do seem to have a significant overlap with much of the liberal agenda of social justice. I believe some of the reason why the movie seems to be missing something — and why so many now are shot well, have good soundtracks, and so on while still not making that final etching into my soul — follows from the fact that the movies are motivated by something other than a desire to reveal a truth people should know. In hopes of countering that problem, I leave off with this from Batuman:

“[M]y hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.”
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