Nihilism in the Moonlight

By Tim Winterstein

I’m not going to lie; there’s a little bit of hipster in me. It’s much harder for me to get enthusiastic about movies or music that other people recommend to me, except for a couple of people. I like to be the one who recommends things. I know that’s a fault, but there it is. This is especially true of those things that win at major award shows, such as the Academy Awards. I still haven’t seen Spotlight, though it’s on my list, and I kept putting off seeing Moonlight until last night.

Maybe part of it is the fear of disappointment. Awards raise expectations, and they’re so often unfulfilled. For my part, I wouldn’t have chosen Moonlight or La La Land, though they are both clearly cinematic achievements. If I were the Academy, the Best Picture would have gone to Silence, which is beautiful, sweeping, and profound. But I’m not the Academy, so who cares?

I don’t want to be the person who has to put films down because they garner so much attention (though, as I said, I have that tendency). So, this is not that sort of review of Moonlight. It’s a great film. It’s unique, and it’s easy to see why Hollywood and the critics loved it. There’s nothing else like it: a depiction of black life that is not confined to one sub-culture or to one neighborhood, which has a gay, black male at the center of the story. Who has a frame of reference for a film like this? So, it’s ground-breaking, and it has received every sort of encomium that you would expect to see flash on a screen as the trailer ends, with all the laurels and awards.

My frame of reference can neither encompass the film nor encompass the experience of young, black men growing up essentially on their own—let alone the experience of a boy who’s bullied and insulted with the typical vulgarities and who asks his only father figure in the film, “What’s a faggot?” I can’t pretend I have any position from which to comment on such things, so what follows are simply questions and issues that the film raised for me.

I wasn’t disappointed with the film as a film. The story is chronological, but it’s not told in a simply linear fashion. Rather than simply proceed from one thing to another, the three acts of Chiron’s life are told in a circular fashion, hitting similar themes while building on what has gone before. The pain and isolation is evident in all three actors playing Chiron as a child, teenager, and adult. That makes it difficult to watch because it brings home how upside-down and devastated is this world. Chiron’s life and the world in which he lives feels like an inescapable prison. The incarceration doesn’t stop when he gets out of prison. The rage and frustration that get played out in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore are not hard to understand.

I know that people are going to view the end of this film as redemptive, and I understand why. For Chiron, it is the completion of a circle that has been broken for as long as he can remember. He’s known only one surrogate father, and not for very long. His mother drove him to find surrogate mothers. He’s known only one true friend. (This is a continual annoyance of mine: Hollywood is unable to conceive of any same-sex friendship that’s not about sexual attraction. There seems to be nothing between “boys will be boys” hyper-masculinity and sexual intimacy. There’s only the bro culture and the gay culture, at least in the West.)

But in the end, Chiron finally finds a place for his self. It is the self-fulfillment of the advice given to him by Juan that he not let anyone else tell him who he is, but that he has to decide for himself. That seems to be the goal for nearly everyone today. What other explanation is there for the near total domination of identity politics? Everyone feels deeply the desire to belong somewhere and to someone. When you think you’ve finally found that, you’re going to bare tooth and claw to maintain that. If anyone suggests or implies that the identity you’ve found (or created) might not be as totalizing as you need it to be, that person automatically becomes the enemy, because he or she is striking at what you’ve come to believe is the very heart of who you are as a person. Identity is everything.

But redemptive is the last word that comes to mind for me. Moonlight holds out the same depressing, false hope that is promoted in nearly every corner of our popular culture: If only you can find out who you truly are, then you can live your most authentic self in a world of fakes and hypocrites. But such a goal seems to be just one more mask, just one more form of hypocrisy.

And the greatness of the film as a film only serves to obscure the fact that the story isn’t all that groundbreaking at all. Consider how, in broad outline, it follows the plot of every single romantic drama and comedy ever: two people find love; some stupid word or action leads to separation; both people pine for each other, even if they’ve found others; and in the end, they find that the other was really always the only one.

That doesn’t mean the story has no attraction; it must if it’s repeated so often. Nor do I mean to minimize how much more complicated the story is or the many deeper issues it raises. But at its heart, why does such a plot appeal to us? Because we are unfailingly optimistic that everything will work out in the end. We’re so confident of it that “everything will be okay” has become a trite cliché. It’s a truism that we hardly ever question, or even know how to question. And the reason we don’t want to question it is because if that “hope” is removed, what can we possibly put in its place? If things will not “work out” for us, what good can we expect?

And maybe that was the most depressive thing for me as I watched: a fulfilling, merely human love seems like such an empty promise. I have trouble feeling anything for romantic and sentimental anticipations of happily ever after. It’s not the way of this world. And whenever such hope is anchored in this creation as it is, it can only ever remain disappointed and unfulfilled.

The effect of such stories is to build up impregnable walls around the sentiment that the goal of everything is simply to “be happy,” whatever the hell that can possibly mean. “Well, as long as they’re happy,” we say. But happiness is a fickle and flighty mistress. We’re always chasing her around, and the chase itself proves that we cannot achieve or capture what we think we’re seeking. Who is ever happy as long as happiness is the goal? Happiness, like humility, is present only as long as we’re not looking directly at it.

Moonlight is an achievement in itself, but I couldn’t help feeling as I do with any number of other films where their beauty cannot quite be overcome by the ultimate nihilism of their themes. Blue nihilism in the moonlight is just as much nihilism as it is in the bright light of day.