Years ago I was reading testimonies from people who had experienced abusive corporal punishment. One man reached adulthood before he was able to give the right name to something for which he was frequently beaten. His parents had called it a lot of things, but the true name of his crime was “tenderness.”
Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins from a story by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, tells the story of Chiron (shy-RONE), a gay kid coming of age in the toughest parts of late-’90s Miami. It’s impressionistic and image-rich, with swirling camera and lush color. And although some critics have wondered where the plot is—where is all this going?—at the film’s end we learn that this has been a story about men’s need to be tender.
Moonlight has a lot of flaws. McCraney’s plays often focus on young people at the margins of black communities—a high-school track star who gives up her ambitions in order to serve her family (In the Red and Brown Water), a gay kid at a black Christian boys’ boarding school (Choir Boy)—and inject their harrowing circumstances with a streak of sentimentality. In order to work, his stories require dreamlike aesthetics and utterly sincere acting.
The dialogue in Moonlight is sparse, and when people do speak they’re often plainspoken to the point of cliché. So the film relies heavily on the actors to add depth. And the acting is uneven: Mahershala Ali as a father-figure drug dealer is excellent, radiating taciturn love, but Naomie Harris as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother has a hard time getting her Hollywood teeth around her downscale grammar. (She also gets the worst lines.) Trevante Rhodes is fantastic as the adult Chiron, a tough guy haunted by his scared, awkward, hopeful younger self. To me, the actors who play Chiron as a boy (Alex R. Hibbert) and teen (Ashton Sanders) were directed to be too one-note, too completely sad and shut down. It’s as if even before we meet him, Chiron has been bullied out of having a personality: as if all that’s left is damage.
Arguably this is part of the movie’s insight. The refrain, “Who is you?,” underscores the way Chiron’s quest to be hard has destroyed his individuality. Moonlight has beautiful passages, like the lovely scene in which the drug dealer teaches the young Chiron to swim. And its beauties are also truths. Moonlight honors those silent acts by which people who don’t fuss much about their feelings show tender love: teaching a skill, or laying down a plate of fried chicken in front of a hungry kid. Even Chiron’s homosexuality may be in part a quest for intimacy and tenderness with men, rather than sex per se. Sex is the only language he’s been given for these longings.
I was raised in a mostly secular Jewish home and a progressive community. I don’t remember ever hearing explicit praise for tenderness; humility, meekness, surrender were all unnamed. We were taught to idealize strong fighters (Fannie Lou Hamer, Eugene V. Debs) for their toughness in the face of opposition. I often think about the many times my own father surrendered his self-will to serve his family and do his duty—but nobody ever spoke about these acts in those terms.
It’s easy for humility, once named, to become just another standard to live up to, just another iron rod by which we judge others and occasionally ourselves. Still, when I discovered the Catholic Church, I think part of what I fell in love with was Her vocabulary of love: For Christians, love is acceptance, resignation, submission, humiliation, self-gift. The great Marc Almond sang that “tenderness is a weakness.” The Church agrees—and She gives refuge to the weak.
Or that’s how it should be. If we followed the Gospels, we’d know that meekness and tenderness make a boy not less manly, but more Christlike. And yet few American Christian families encourage tenderness in their sons.
In a hard world it’ll kill you to be gentle. That’s the message of the first two-thirds of Moonlight. The Christian way—of loving one's enemies, blessing those who curse you, forgiveness, and peacemaking—is a message of martyrdom. (It appears nowhere in this film; the churches are simply AWOL from these characters’ struggles.) Like the Church’s sexual discipline, Christian meekness is a standard virtually none of us consistently reach.
The final passage of Moonlight shows that we cannot live without this thing we cannot do.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.