Camilla Long Is Wrong About “Moonlight” 

I imagine that Camilla Long, film critic at The Times, is likely spending today licking the wounds she incurred after the thorough dragging she recieved on Twitter this weekend, following her callous, racist, and embarrassing review of the films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. And righftully so! Her review is easily one of the most absurd and offensive things I’ve come across in 2017 that wasn’t from the White House, and Long should be ashamed of herself, both as a person and a “critic.” In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet, so I shall reserve my opinions on Long’s opinions on that film for another time. However, I did see Moonlight, and, aside from being particularly unsettled by the overt racism of Long’s piece, I also disgreed with her non-racist criticisms. She’s wrong about Moonlight. 

The most obvious offense in the piece is Long’s claim that Moonlight could not possibly be “relevant” to an audience she conceives of as mostly “straight, white, and middle class.” The immediate emotional response, of course, is “Fuck you.” The more measured and thoughtful response, though, is to point out just how dispicable this position is. Make make no mistake: this is a racist ideology, and Camilla Long is a racist for espousing it. This is the exact ideology against which last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign railed. This is the exact ideology that has left us with a preponderance of movies about white characters of all stripes, which are often lavished with critical praise despite the actual strengths of their merits (here’s looking at you, La La Land) and a disheartening shortage of equally varied depictions of people of color. That Long apparently considers “being relevant to white people” some sort of requiste for cinematic or artistic accomplishment only further articulates her own racism: such a perspective seems impossible to maintain outside of the lens of white supremacy. That is, Long’s big gripe with Moonlight is that, unlike practically every other movie ever made, it isn’t about affirming whiteness.

Of course, one might expect Long to deny that any such imbalace between the represenations of whites in film (especially Hollywood) and the representations of the rest of us even exists: she insists (so wrongly) that stories like Moonlight, which charts the experiences of Chiron, a gay, black man in Miami, at three different points in his life, have “been told countless times, against countless backdrops.” Both viewer experience and Long’s failure to offer any concrete examples belie this notion. 

Because she’s going out of her way to be racist, Long fabricates several demerits with which to accuse Moonlight. She thinks it is an “interesting disctinction” that Juan, the adult drug dealer who acts as a surrogate father figure for Chiron, keeping the boy safe from both bullies and his drug-addled mother, is middle class himself, and that he is “calm, appreciative, fully ‘woke’ dude living in beautiful interior-designed house,” and one can only assume that by “interesting distinction” she means that it is unlikely. Also confounding, for Long, is the willingness with which Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, shares in the responsibility of looking after Chiron and welcoming him into their home. In both critiques what is made clear is that all Camilla Long knows of blackness is what she’s seen in the movies. Juan and his house are both for Long “too nice” because the only idea she has of a black man who sells drugs is that of one who maybe dresses like Juan, with his baggy clothes and his do-rags, but who possesses all of the anger, violence, hostility, and domestic squalor–the black criminal exterior–that Juan lacks. Long simply cannot reconcile her presuppositions with the images before her. Likewise, her dismay over Teresa’s kindess seems fueled by too many movies in which African American motherhood is at best pitied and at worst vilified (anything from The Color Puple (pitied) to Precious (vilified) to The Help (both)). The representations of black mothers who are both happy women and competent mothers are out there (even if Long hasn’t been exposed to them); however, Long’s views makes clear that these images are no where near as prevelant as their counterparts–even for a woman who makes her living reviewing films. 

Long seems to have missed entirely the point of Moonlight. She calls the picture the film paints of “the African American community’s attitude to gay sex” “one-note,” but the film itself harldy seems interested in representing the attitude of an entire demographic, of either the one-note or textured variety. Rather, it is a very specific tale about the very specific experience of a very specific boy–a specificity rarely afforded to stories about people like Chiron. This specificity is evidenced by the intimate closeness of the filming, which situates the viewer firmly in the world of the film (or should) and what Long calls its “single lines of agonised dialogue,” which is actually spare, striking, even poetic. But Long’s view of black Americans as all members of one ghetto or another again prevent her from seeing Moonlight correctly. Why must it be that the film articulates an African American attitude toward homosexuality and not, for instance, a working class attitude (for Long, the “ghetto”), or even a “heteronormative” attitude (which it certainly is)? Because Long can’t help but generalize blackness, and black people; therefore, she can only deduce generalities from black art. 

That she simply didn’t “get” the movie is evident in her other large criticism, which concerns the film’s fragmented storytelling technique, which Long confuses for meandering plotlessness but which is actually quite successful. The film is broken into three distinct parts. The first part features Chiron as a bullied youth who is taken under Juan’s wing. The second part features Chiron as a quiet, bullied teenager whose burgeoning homosexuality finds expression in a beachside encounter with his friend, Kevin, played against his mother’s harrowing descent into drug addition and his growing relationship with Juan and Teresa. In the film’s third part, Chiron is an adult, now a drug dealer himself, who somewhat spontaneously reconnects with Kevin after several years. 

It is this third part that draws the strongest connection between the film’s vignette form and its content. The flirtation between Chiron and Kevin when they meet as grown men is as endearing as it is weighted with the hesistency and subtlety their lives have taught them is necessary where their sexuality is concerned, and although the actors who play these characters at each stage of their lives bear little physical resemblance to one another, it is impossible to witness the tender touching that ends the film without remembering the violence that has preceeded it. Despite Juan’s apparent acceptance of Chiron’s homosexuality early in the film, the larger society in which he lives has left its mark on Chiron’s psyche. Once bullied for his small size and his gender performance, as an adult Chiron has transformed himself into a massive hulk of guy, appearing even more the drug dealer than Juan, which is enough to suggest an effort to dispense with his old reputation and victimization–that is, to emulate or even exaggerate the notions of masculinity and manhood which had formerly opppressed him (and in this way still do). Affirming this is his confession to Kevin that no one has touched him since that night on the beach. It’s quite obvious that Chiron has insulated himself against both the injustices of his past and the desires of his present; that he has quite literally built himself up as a fortress against them, or a dungeon to keep them in, and that it might be just as easy to continue this way. Just as easy, certainly more convenient, perhaps even safer. 

And yet, he doesn’t. Instead, he goes to visit Kevin. Instead, he lets Kevin touch him, lets himself be touched. Yes, these events are isolated from the events of the film’s first two parts–and those parts from each other–but it is precisely this isolation that drives home Moonlight’s overrarcing point, and one of its triumphs. Camilla Long may want movies that order life into a cohesive chronology that explains the end result, but Moonlight says no. Moonlight resists that. Its anti-narrative is disruptive, even combative, because it has to be: it is queer. This queerness disrupts the narrative structure, which is also necessary, for how to accurately and truthfully convey black and/or queer lives via a structure that oppressives and excludes them? 

Mostly–and perhaps most saddening–is that Long mistakes her racism and her inability to empathize with the black characters of Moonlight (and, I suspect, Hidden Figures) as a failure of the movie to be relevant. As such, she misses what is “universal” about Moonlight: at its core an immensely hopeful film, it says that our pasts don’t have to define us, that our experiences don’t have to be who we are, that we can go a different way. In light of her recent humiliation, such news should seem particularly relevant to Ms. Long.

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