In a few days at the Oscars, we’re likely to see director Barry Jenkins’s acclaimed film Moonlight up for numerous awards, including Best Picture. It will also likely bring home many of those awards. Yet, as Christians, most of us won’t be sure what to do with this film about a young, gay black man, despite the fact that it may just be the best and most needed movie of the year—especially for the church.
It’s certainly no easy task to live out the cultural mandate in a Genesis 3 world. Until Christ comes back and makes all things new again, Christians will be seeking to understand what it means to be “in the world but not of the world,” to figure out what is simply “permissible” and what is actually “beneficial.” Sure, we’ll have models and guides to help us along the way—Niebuhrs and Benedict Options—but in this lifetime, we’ll spend our dying days still striving and still failing to faithfully create, sustain, and consume culture in a society plagued by sin.
This is especially true for Christians dealing with something as complex as art. And though it doesn’t appear that we’re headed toward hell in a handbasket, as if the Christian story were a cynical story of declinism, every era and movement of culture presents a number of new and unique challenges—and opportunities. Two of those within our current cultural landscape center on the issues of race and sexuality.
Moonlight, which brought home Best Drama Motion Picture at the Golden Globes, takes up both of these issues and has garnered significant attention not only for focusing on them but also for doing so in a compelling way. The film functions more as an exploration into social identity than a commentary on our cultural moment, but it nevertheless paints a compelling picture of what it looks like to be gay, poor, and black through the story of its protagonist, Chiron. For Christians seeking to engage with the film, this premise naturally creates both some challenges and some opportunities.
Jenkins breaks up Chiron’s story into three acts: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black.” The first, “Little,” follows a young Chiron, who finds solace and shelter in a compassionate drug dealer, Juan, and his girlfriend, Teresa. Here we get a glimpse of Chiron’s physical and spiritual poverty as we watch the child take care of himself while his mother tries to make ends meet, as well as the ridicule and bullying he faces from peers for being small and “different.”
The next act, “Chiron,” picks up with the protagonist as a confused teenager. Chiron’s mom has now moved from occasional drug user to full on crack addict, and he is put right in the middle of her addiction while also being tormented at school for being gay. Still unsure of who or what he is, Chiron ends up kissing his childhood friend, Kevin, while smoking a joint at the beach, only to later be beat up by Kevin, which eventually sends Chiron to prison for retaliation.
The final act, “Black,” shows Chiron after his time in the pen. He’s now following in the footsteps of Juan as a hardened drug dealer, masking his homosexuality in a pseudo masculinity—though he eventually ends up back in Miami for a reunion with Kevin.
Less a traditional narrative and more a visual experience, this simple story acts as a window into the unfamiliar in more ways than one. Jenkins, working with cinematographer James Laxton, makes us feel as if we’re right there with Chiron, using handheld cameras that flow sporadically, yet delicately, in and out of scenes.