We Need Moonlight More Than La La Land

Pop Culture

We Need Moonlight More Than La La Land

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

could not stop texting friends, colleagues, family, everyone, anyone as I rushed out of the theatre after watching La La Land. I’d seen many great films prior to La La Land, but none had broken through as keenly as it. As this website wrote a few months ago, “La La Land is soaring and dazzling and gorgeous and all the adjectives that reviewers across the world have employed for it. But more than anything it is a romantic dinosaur, lush with a kind of pure feeling that does not seem to exist anymore.”

Despite the issues that purists had with the creative liberties the film has taken with jazz and musicals, mostly owing to our collective culture’s love for backlash, the film left whoever I spoke to with a warm and fuzzy heart, and a yearning to go back to times when love was simpler. And so this year it might win Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, especially because it’s the polar opposite of the emotional state bestowed upon us by Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the only real contender to the Damien Chazelle musical. Where you wish La La Land would go on long after the end, you can’t wait to get out of the theatre’s oversized chair after Moonlight, feeling a claustrophobic shiftiness to run out and breathe.

Moonlight is the song of a black kid from the housing projects in Miami told in three verses: as a young boy named Little, an out-of-place teenager called Chiron, and as a not-so-grown man labelled Black. Director Barry Jenkins’s camera jumps in at pivotal moments in his life, as Chiron navigates around his impoverished youth with an abusive mother and the burgeoning homosexuality he struggles to understand.

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While La La Land is a film emphasising the problems faced by its characters, Moonlight is a film emphasising the humanity of its protagonists.

Courtesy: Lionsgate

Growing up without a father, with a mother casually getting higher than Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad’s Season 2, Chiron finds a surprising father figure in Juan, played by the dazzling Mahershala Ali. Juan is powerful, has a good house, rides a cool car, and has a rock-solid and lovely girlfriend Teresa, but his means of employement is the same as most men in the hood: dealing drugs. This is a costly realisation for Chiron. In one heartbreaking scene, attempting to understand how Juan has everything figured out, Chiron asks him, “My mama does drugs? Do you sell drugs?” Watching Juan stare back blankly at him and seeing Chiron put two and two together in his head and leave is devastating – as is watching a lone tear rolling down Juan’s eye.

In this era of black consciousness, Moonlight is about any or all of these particularly race-related social issues which lurk in the background. But it also isn’t because that doesn’t interest director Barry Jenkins, whose lens instead focuses on the thrill of swimming for the first time, running from older kids who want to beat you up, and meeting a friend you fell out with years ago. What concerns Jenkins is the messy nature of growing up and the complicated idea of modern manhood.

Chiron, for example, is unaware that drugs can hurt, much the same way he doesn’t know, upon growing up, that love almost always hurts. For instance, when he’s being punched in the face for being a “quiet sissy” in the black ghetto by the boy he had sex with the previous night. The boy, Kevin, under pressure from his peers, punches Chiron thrice in the face to prove his masculinity as Chiron’s is destroyed. This is followed almost immediately by Chiron all grown-up, eerily driving the same car as Juan, rocking the same golden teeth, twitching his tongue the same way, and dealing drugs like the only respected man he knew. The only real criminality here, was the burning of another sensitive, curious, young black man at the stake of stereotypical black masculinity.

I left the theatre going through a mental catalogue of people I’d met growing up and idolising, rummaging through my physical and mental characteristics, thinking when and from whom I’d stolen them. This wasn’t the wide-eyed, jumpy emotional state post-La La Land. This was the existential WTF of not knowing what to do anymore.

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What concerns Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is the messy nature of growing up and the complicated idea of modern manhood.

Courtesy: A24

This was only heightened by the open-endedness of the film, where grown-up Chiron becomes young Chiron for one day. This is another way Moonlight blows in the opposite direction of La La Land. Really, once you get past the low-hanging differences between the films, like the colour and softness of the protagonists’ skin, the visual palette of Moonlight’s solid purples against blues to La La Land’s yellows against pinks, the silences to the musicality, we are confronted with the greatest difference between the two: While La La Land is a film emphasising the problems faced by its characters, Moonlight, as put by Wesley Morris on the Still Processing podcast, is a film emphasising the humanity of its protagonists.

La La Land, a big-thumping heart, brought to screen works because we yearn to go back to a mythical happy place. Its grandeur is accentuated by the bleakness of our hearts. Moonlight, on the other hand, is the bleakness of our hearts. It is the beauty and suffering of human experience. Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, speaks of this experience that “arises from the nearly microscopic observational felicities that fill the film. Even passing details, like the ball of newspaper strips with which boys play as Little gazes longingly from afar, or the bath of ice with which Chiron soothes grave bruises, infuse the film with such tactile vitality that the viewing experience seems to come from behind the screen and affect the viewer physically”.

With the Oscars a few hours away and La La Land leading with a record 14 nominations and overwhelming odds, probability dictates the film will take home the top honour. It will not be because of #OscarsSoWhite, but it will be because La La Land is a perfect film in every way for an academy which loves rewarding movies about the movies. But sometimes, especially in the current political and cultural climate, we don’t need perfect. We need the uncomfortable intimacy of corrosive reality. And for that, added with the fearlessness of its mere existence, Moonlight is already the best film of the year.

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