MFA Movies at Night: Moonlight

March 13, 2017 | By Roshni Thyagrajan

On Friday, February 10, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) collaborated with the Roxbury International Film Festival and Wicked Queer: The Boston LGBT Film Festival to present a screening of  “Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins. The film garnered significant attention after winning the award for Best Motion Picture—Drama at the 2017 Golden Globes. It was nominated for several Academy Awards, and won Best Picture.

The MFA’s sold-out event included a half hour discussion panel. The panel consisted of Reggie Williams, Executive Director of the Transformative Culture Project, Inc., Corey Yarbrough, the founder and former Executive Director of the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition, and Dr. S. Atyia Marin, the Chief Resilience Officer of the City of Boston


Photo Courtesy of A24

The three panelists took time to reflect on the emotional, personal, and political weight of the film after its screening.

Jenkins’ “Moonlight”  tells a story that is inherently risky. The film depicts subject matter that is often misrepresented or looked over. Luckily, this time audiences have chosen to listen. 

“Moonlight” is a coming-of-age film about Chiron, a gay black boy growing up in the housing projects of Miami. The film is divided into three sections, the first of which is Chiron’s youth under the nickname “Little” (portrayed by Alex R. Hibbert).

Little is taken in by Juan (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), who is depicted as the knight in shining armor of the film. Juan mentors Little and provides him with a space to explore and understand his identity. However, Juan maintains his side role as a drug lord by trade. 

The inherent conflict of Juan’s character tells the audience right off the bat that their expectations and predispositions are wrong. It forces the audience to separate themselves from their inherent biases, and accept the rest of the film as it is presented.  

Sections two and three of the film continue through Little’s adolescence under his true name “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders), and through his adulthood under the alias “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). 

Throughout all three sections, Chiron struggles to resolve the different aspects of his identity. His masculinity is always in conflict with his sexuality, and his race and economic status feel invariably tied to his future.

As Yarborough said in the panel, “‘Moonlight’ complicates and humanizes black men.” Even in a movie that is about sexuality, black men are neither overly sexualized nor comic relief. 

The film shifts the narrative of the African American man away from overused stereotypes and tropes, and offers Chiron’s experiences for what they are: three-dimensional. 

Herein lies the beauty of “Moonlight” — the film does not go out of its way to break or enforce stereotypes about race, homosexuality, drug use, or anything else. It simply presents a story and allows the audience to see the complexities of real experiences. 

As Dr. Martin recognized, “Moonlight” is “real and authentic in terms of how we navigate the world and other people.” Of course, a movie about race and sexuality in today’s era is inherently political, even if it does not try to be. 

The panel moderator made it a point to bring up the increased number of Oscar nominations for films and actors of color this year, such as Dev Patel for “Lion,” Ruth Negga for “Loving,” films like “Hidden Figures” and “Fences,” and of course, “Moonlight.” She questioned whether more nominations were indicative of a changing political climate and an increased acceptance to the narratives of people of color. 

All three panelists agreed that no, this was not enough.

Williams and Yarborough both said that even though films like “Moonlight” may be depicting the stories of black men, changing attitudes about race and sexuality need to be reflected in policy. The stories and the lives of minorities matter, and they have to matter outside of the arts and in the real world.

Dr. Martin brought up the fact that one awards show with more black nominees is not enough to show a broader change in mindsets. She wanted to see this trend continue through future awards shows, instead of being a reaction to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, where the academy was criticized for ignoring the filmography of people of color.

“Moonlight” is a film worth watching for its beautiful cinematography. It is worth watching for its outstanding soundtrack, which ranges from Mozart to Kendrick Lamar. 

However, what makes this film award-worthy is that it lets the viewer experience a life that most people never see: the life of a homosexual black man, who pushes through relentless turbulence trying to find acceptance. 

The MFA will continue to screen movies throughout the year, including a retrospective on Director Stanley Kubrick throughout the month of February.