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John DoughertyFebruary 09, 2024
Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali star in a scene from "Moonlight." (CNS photo/A24)

February is Black History Month, and Catholic Movie Club is going to focus on the work of Black directors. I’ve invited a friend to join me each week to discuss these films with me, to have Black voices involved in this series. I hope you enjoy our dialogues as much as I have!

Identity is a tricky thing. It’s not enough to simply say, “This is who I am.” Before we can say that with any authenticity, we have to do a lot of soul-searching, exploration and reflection on the forces—external and internal—that shape us. Sometimes we spend years thinking we’re being ourselves, only to look back and realize that we were just being who everyone around us wanted us to be. In those moments identity can feel elusive, like trying to scoop the moon’s reflection out of the water.

A conversation on Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film for Black History month.

This week’s film—“Moonlight” (2016), directed by Barry Jenkins, written by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney—is a beautiful meditation on identity and growing up. We follow Chiron, a young man growing up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, through three different chapters of his life (Alex R. Hibbert portrays Chiron as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult). Chiron struggles to embrace his sexual identity, while navigating bullying and a tumultuous relationship with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a drug addict. But he also finds mentors and protectors in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and over the years forms an intimate—if complicated—bond with Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland). “Moonlight” won critical acclaim and was named Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.

“Moonlight” was suggested by my conversation partner this week: Lauren Morton, creator of Bee at Peace, an Atlanta-based initiative rooted in Ignatian spirituality that seeks to create spaces for Black women to encounter God through peace, stillness and connection. She is also the ideal person to talk to about “Moonlight”: She saw it three times in theaters and predicted, after her first viewing, that it would win Best Picture. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

John Dougherty: Can you tell me a little about the first time you saw this movie? What struck you?

Lauren Morton: I’ve always been a fan of Barry Jenkins and his films, and I had read about this film and I was very intrigued. And when I saw it the first time there is a scene in the movie where Chiron is going to visit Kevin and he gets in the car, and there’s this beautiful Spanish song playing and…that was the scene that made me fall deeply in love with the film. There are some movies that just stay with you. I also personally was doing some of my own exploration around the question that Kevin says to Chiron: “Who is you?” I think it’s the question that we all ask ourselves at some point in life.

I didn’t see it until after it won Best Picture. I wasn’t expecting it to be as intimate as it was. I went in expecting a much bigger, much more dramatic story, but it’s really such a gentle and meditative journey through his growing up. You brought up identity, and I think that idea of “Who am I?” is so central to Ignatian spirituality. How do you listen to God and how do you find where God’s leading you? As someone who is coming from that spiritual context, how did the film’s meditation on identity resonate for you?

I think about it with Juan because he is from Cuba and lives in Miami and is also a drug dealer, and like most of us in our lives he has this complicated part of himself that shows the full face of his humanity. People can have complications and also be so loving and graceful. And then I think about Chiron. He had to grow up much faster due to his mother’s drug addiction and also trying to fit into this world. He becomes this grown-up man, but he’s still a little boy on the inside.

I love how the ocean and the beach is this very rare place of peace for him, where he gets to go and be away from the chaos of his daily life. It feels like he’s connecting himself to something that’s bigger and deeper. As somebody who creates that kind of space for people, I wanted to hear if you had any thoughts on that.

In Ignatian spirituality there’s that place that you always return to, that you feel most at home, when you feel like you are most yourself. There’s that place that always anchors you, and I think for him it was the ocean. The ocean doesn’t care who he is, what he does, what he’s about. The ocean accepts him for who he is.

And that’s so rare for him. It’s really special.

I also think, to some degree, that he had kind of his own koinonia, his own beloved community. Because in spite of everything else he had Juan, he had Teresa, he had Kevin. Juan and Teresa were kind of his parents, they stepped in the gap. I truly believe that if we don’t have something that is an important part of our life, that God gives us those people. He sends those people to take care of us. I think Juan and Teresa were that for him, lovingly and gently being with him and helping him make meaning of his life.

I was thinking about how much of the film is about touch, in good and bad ways. There’s violence, but there’s also the swimming lesson, and the boys play-wrestling at the beginning. Then in the third chapter, it’s very obvious how Chiron and Kevin are not touching. There’s distance between them until that very last shot. In that idea of God leading you to somebody, it’s significant that Kevin reaches out to him. It made me think of my own relationships. You are doing your best to be like, “I’m fine on my own, I’m going to push everybody away, I don’t need God.” But then somebody’s knocking on your door, and I believe God is behind that.

When we think about spirituality and our connection with God, we think of it as a struggle—and particularly when we think about male relationships that it’s all about toughness and fighting and valor and bravery. But is there bravery just in the soft touch and being held by God? The film centers on the relationships between men and that softness between men. You got Juan and Chiron and that journey to understanding relationships, and then the final scene with Chiron and Kevin and the last line kind of reframing what it means to be a man—that men can be softly held by God too.

Where do you personally find God in this film?

The thing that I continue to be drawn to is the idea of standing in the gap. Chiron is this little boy who had so much that he was robbed of, but God held him softly and brought people to stand in the gap—feeding him and giving him a place to sleep, clothes, money, support that he needed, those sorts of things. It’s one of those things that I think every time I watch the film. There was such grace and such care in the relationships. It just made me feel as if God never leaves us. It’s beautiful.

“Moonlight” is streaming on Max and DirecTV.

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