Avery LaFlamme, BCH Program Assistant
** SPOILER ALERT: This post will discuss narrative details of the film Moonlight directed by Barry Jenkins and the film Honeytrap directed by Rebecca Johnson. Both films are fantastic and worth seeing, so don’t let this post ruin a chance to discover these films on your own**
After our advance screening of Moonlight at Harper Theater, there were a few beats of pensive silence while Jacqueline Stewart, E. Patrick Johnson and Tarell Alvin McCraney settled into their seats in front of the screen, getting ready to have a short Q&A session about film, its inspirations, and its effects. The best part about pairing a screening with a discussion immediately afterwards is that it gives us the opportunity to share our most automatic reactions, which often times can be the most revealing.
For me, one of those reactions was about the ending. I won’t attempt to put into words all the emotions and sensations both depicted and elicited by Jenkins’ imagery, but I will say that the film in its final act builds an extreme tension between Chiron, or “Black,” and Kevin as they finally reconnect after years apart. As we follow them through a single, slow evening, the film leads us towards what I thought would be a climactic sex scene between the two, that will end the film with a passionate capstone to a relationship that started back when they were only kids.
But instead, the film ends with Black and Kevin sharing a quiet embrace, followed by a flashback to a young Chiron’s bare back as he stands on the Miami beach years prior in the blue of night, followed by a black screen just after Chiron looks over his shoulder towards us.
If the audible sighs from the audience weren’t already a clear enough signal, E. Patrick Johnson addressed what many of us where thinking when he expressed how he was thankful that the characters didn’t have sex in the end. Tarell McCraney agreed. He spoke of writing the play that begat Jenkin’s screenplay, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and how he felt that the ending wasn’t meant to be coy or clever, but rather he felt that both characters, especially Chiron, had achieved exactly what they had be searching for throughout the entire story: intimacy.
Not to silence the feelings of frustration at the glaring absence of film representations of sex between black men, McCraney explained why he felt the film called for a different sort of closure. “We just watched these characters move mountains…” said McCraney, referring to those final scenes in Kevin’s diner as the two struggle through their first face-to-face conversation since the violent episode that drove them apart. “For them to go through all that, and immediately hop into bed together, for me that would’ve been even more unreal…” Regardless of what we actually think about the absence of that sex scene, I think McCraney makes an interesting point. By omitting that scene, McCraney and Jenkins help us to consider intimacy in a much broader sense, as something that isn’t equivalent to sex and in fact, need not involve sex at all.
What about the intimacy between Chiron and his friends and family? In the moments we are given with Chiron and his mother Paula played by Naomie Harris, it is clear that their relationship is damaged and distant. Paula’s dependence on drugs and the resulting lifestyle prevents her from expressing her love for her only son. And besides the glimpses of Paula’s enabling male friend, Chiron lacks a male role model. That is until he meets Juan, an grown character who becomes a figure of admiration for Chiron, giving him poignant advice on self-determination while also teaching him skills like how to swim. And with characters his age, we are shown that the child Chiron is already kept at a distance from the other boys. As the kids are running and tackling, Chiron stands on the sidelines, and it’s not until young Kevin offers to teach Chiron how to wrestle that Chiron becomes truly involved.
Looking back over the film, after reacting to the ending and hearing McCraney’s musings, I start to think about some of the film’s most memorable moments in new terms. Now, when Juan holds Chiron in the waves of the Atlantic during a swim lesson / baptism, I now see an intimacy being forged between child and role model. Now, when Chiron and Kevin joyfully wrestle in the grass, I see the beginnings of a intimate friendship. Now, when a teenage Chiron pulls a blanket over his sleeping mother, I see a spark of intimacy between an mother-son relationship ravaged by drug use. All of these moments, together with ending, turn the whole movie into this ongoing journey from one moment of intimacy to the next.
All of this reminded me of another film we screened in October called Honeytrap, created in 2014 by directed Rebecca Johnson and released in the US by Ava Duvernay’s distribution collective ARRAY. This film revolves around the notion of intimacy in a similar way to Moonlight, provided a vivid portrait of how issues of intimacy between parent and child can underscore a life-long struggle. 15-year-old Layla travels alone from Trinidad to live with her mom in Brixon, London, and their relationship is shown to be tense and emotionally distant. Layla’s movements through UK teen culture, particularly the experience of black teens, seems to only add more stress to their connection. In the film’s climax, Layla becomes involved in a plot to ambush another teen, resulting in the teen’s death, and when the police arrive at her front door, Layla has no energy left to defend her innocence. It’s a tragic end to a story that found Layla struggling to adapt in a new environment with no support from her mom, her only family. Finally, as Layla and her mom ride in the back of the police cruiser, her mom reaches out and grabs Layla’s hand. This touching exchange becomes the only real moment of intimacy between mother and daughter, and interestingly, the last gesture of the film.
In both of these films, the stories are told in moments of intimacy, or lack thereof. Specifically, in both Moonlight and Honeytrap we can trace how intimacy is expressed physically between characters. Whether it be a quiet embrace or a held hand, these subtle gestures communicate volumes, deepening connections between friends and family, as well as lovers. In Honeytrap, maybe Layla is driven by a desire for the intimacy that she has never found at home, and when her efforts turn against her, its exactly that family intimacy that consoles her. In Moonlight, maybe Chiron is trying to understand himself in a confusing world where his mother seems to despise him and a drug dealer cares for him, and ultimately learns to accept himself and the intimacy offered by a lifelong friend.
Either way, these films are nuanced and beautiful portraits of specific black experiences, and thinking about them together has helped me make sense of their many lessons. I hope everyone has the chance to see these films and to find something to love.