Grief, Memory & ‘Moonlight’

Photo by Google Images.

It is 5:45am, a time my insomnia does not recognize as anything invalid. Lying on my shed skins with stale champagne, I am eulogizing the marks of day-old lovers with songs given to me by each of them. Jukebox opposite my melatonin, a Coachella recording of one half-hoarse Jay-Z and his honeysuckle Queen Bey fills the air with promises of being young forever. Serenading each other with a rap-sung outpouring of love, this space is immediately transfigured into a setting only existent in my wanderlust and an honesty nearly forgot in my head. Tonight, I am grieving.

There is a quiet poetry lamented in the stillness of winter nights that makes moths of memories in moonbeams. Captivated by any amount of warmth in this chilled darkness, the night, tempting fire in a garbage can, draws out yellow-winged desires buzzing and dying in the light of Mother Luna. In these instances, space is made for all things unsaid to be audible, both in this plane and those fictitious. Moonlight acts as both safe space and cemetery for truth, with very few things accompanying or interrupting. Meditating on truth and grief, I am noting its witnesses, memory, and music, and remembering their importance in art on folks like me, in Black, queer, and male coverings. Making space much like its namesake, in Moonlight, all that stands between these truths and mourning are a score, a thought, and a beat.

An empty parking lot, fingers entwined, head on shoulder humming Mr. Hudson’s chorus, I begin to wonder what brought me here, just how I found myself in this car, his car. Night sky as catalyst for this interesting bit of nostalgia, he is exactly how I think of him, how I choose to think of him. The cadence of struggling lip sync is drowned out by refrain. Green radio lights bounce on the waves of assorted verses, animating each melody line only heard in my head. It is sobering. This is how I remember last seeing him, fully. An echo. A response. Do you remember the last time I saw you? Instantly, I am transported back to my empty Columbia theater where I last heard the likes of this phrase, a lone silence cooled by a curiously vibrant arrangement of strings and a vision of black skin made blue, brought forth by the combined force of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Set against a Miami backdrop, in Moonlight are illuminated a few very specific moments of transformation and the underlying mourning that joins it in each phase of metamorphosis. Chiron, a Black queer existence told in three acts, experiences loss through rejection, abandonment, and most often, disappointment. As he first encounters the consequences of his “difference” as noted by his antagonizing peers on-screen, Chiron warily watches daylight visions become moonlit nightmares, shifting and maneuvering between different stages of grief like a manual transmission, even if only for a moment. In these moments, at this particular intersection, grief lingers a bit differently. It does not always outwardly wail. It rather changes a tone of voice. It halts a tear. It reactively flinches. It contorts the body to defend. Here, it appears, ever so briefly, in a simple glance that precedes a quick transition.

Backlit by chopped-and-screwed violin, piano, and Jidenna records, a quiet chrysalis takes center stage. Here we see the protagonist change right before our eyes. Very hungry caterpillar, a curious Little becomes a lanky and awkward Chiron and ultimately, a formidable and hardened Black. The sinking of his head in the hallway, the interrogation of the word f*ggot, the ice in the sink, the broken chair, the meeting at the rehab center, the longing in the diner parking lot — all are these moments. All are open windows to bits of Chiron’s internal torment that prod along his constant cocooning, often accompanied by instruments seemingly in shock.

It is here that I find a certain kinship in this kind of grief made public, where softness is killed. Chiron is vulnerable and shaken. Like many men working with frustrating emotions in moments like these, I know them well. On the surface, they are often worked to be ignored. He is solid. He is a monolith, unbreakable. Slightly translucent, he will hide his underbelly as best he can. He will rarely falter. However, beyond the wall, at his center, he is softer. He is wondering. He remembers. He will nurse his wounds. He will cry, only at night, behind closed doors. He will mourn those, both moments and people, that he lost even if he never truly had them. He will be reminded of them sitting in his car. He will think of them, all of them, past moonrise. Through this exploration of Chiron, one question is invoked that wails a bit above the others: How necessary is it to see a grief as specific and particular as this?

Perhaps the brilliance of Moonlight is the nonverbal space in which transformation takes place. It feeds curiosities. It invites the viewer and their respective experiences to unpack and relate. And in my case, it allows one to possibly even heal a bit. You look through the old text threads. You sing your designated part in the song. You don’t sleep on his side of the bed. You remember the ink-stained handkerchief you wiped his tears with. You become an onlooker to every moment of soundtracked silence, every syncopated sniffle, and every pause for breath during late night food runs. You remember each time your words were taken away by the last time you saw him.

In more ways than not, the film facilitates each phase your mourning, helping you remember that suffering in silence is still suffering, even if Chiron’s narrative does not fully match that of your own. I am Black, man, lover of those like me in more instances than I can count, and have grieved in a similar manner. As he says, “For a long time, I tried not to remember,” but at some point, as most nocturnal romantics know, the night brings everything to the surface. You deny. You bargain. You anger. You sadden. And, in the beat of a breath and a brow unfurling, memory props up its violin for one last story. You kiss his forehead. You close the car door. Truth makes itself plain. You re-cork the champagne bottle. You shoo the singing crickets away. You get out of the sandpit. You thank the empty theater for the last 111 minutes. You look to the Moon, and finally, you accept.

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