I keep thinking about Moonlight. I don’t mean to. It just surfaces in my brain, like moss through a sidewalk crack, while I’m going about my day, reading the news, thinking about other things.
For instance: In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly described how, last fall, her then-four-year-old daughter came home from school one day to ask her, “Mom, what’s a bimbo?” Kelly had not personally detailed for her daughter the myriad insults Donald Trump had leveled at her throughout his campaign for the presidency, though “bimbo” was among them; learning that she had not been able to shield her daughter from that epithet, Kelly said, one of the lowest personal moments of the 2016 election season. As she related the story to THR, her eyes teared up:
“I hate that story. My daughter, my awesome, amazing daughter, she didn’t realize the loss she suffered. You know what I mean? I just feel like that was damaging. And she didn’t even know how damaging it was. I mean, listen, it’s not the worst thing that could ever happen, but that upset me. I don’t want that to be a question our 4-year-old daughters are asking us.”
I read that, and I felt tugged back to one of the early, wrenching scenes in writer-director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight: When young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) asks Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the couple that has taken to treating Chiron like their own son, “What’s a faggot?”
Juan explains that it’s a hateful word people use to describe men who like other men. And then comes the real emotional suckerpunch: Chiron asks, “Am I a faggot?” There is so much in that exchange — his terror and confusion and innocence and hope, the dark humor in how Juan and Teresa, through a few quick glances, decide to table the well-we-think-you-could-be-gay-and-that’s-totally-fine conversation for a later date. It’s an elegantly executed sequence in a movie stuffed with them.
I don’t know that I was expecting, ever, to see such a clear connection between Moonlight — a gorgeous, understated tone-poem of a movie about a gay black boy’s coming of age — and Kelly, a Fox news anchor who both coolly dismantles misogynistic pseudo-science and insists that the gender pay gap is “infantilizing” to women. But well-told stories have a way of asserting themselves, of hovering behind the headlines.
Friday night, Vice President-elect Mike Pence engaged in a bit of a duel with Hamilton’s Aaron Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, who read a prepared statement (written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and lead producer, Jeffrey Seller) welcoming and thanking Pence to the theater but also introducing the cast as “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us, and uphold our inalienable rights.”
And so it has been a weekend of wrestling with what role art is going to have in the next four years — Is it a distraction? Is it anything but a distraction?— and wondering how the president-elect will, upon taking office, respond to art with which he disagrees.
Thus far, his preferred reaction tactics are tweets, laced with demands for capitulation (“Apologize!”), insults (Trump claims he hears Hamilton “is highly overrated,” though he must not have asked his daughter about that), and calls for cancelation (Saturday Night Live is, in Trump’s opinion, a “boring and unfunny show” that ought to “retire”).
This is the landscape into which Moonlight was released: One in which the powers-that-be are quick to interpret art as aggression, and in which the vice president-elect is someone who supported the use of federal funding for gay conversation therapy. Moonlight, then, is a personal story made political by dint of timing, context, and cultural climate. And in that way it echoes Loving, another fall release about how personal lives can become political ones.
Loving is based on the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple whose fight to have their marriage recognized and respected in their home state culminated in the Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, which ruled that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
Like Moonlight, Loving finds itself in theaters in a moment that raises the stakes of its message. Less than a month after Loving’s premiere, an annual white nationalist conference held in Washington, D.C. — where the real-life Lovings were married — saw its attendance more than double from last year. They gathered, as the Washington Post reported, to “celebrate what many proclaimed as a coming-out moment in their mission to turn back multiculturalism and eventually create a whites-only ‘ethno-state’ in North America.”
When we meet Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) in Loving, they are already in love, already expecting, and not yet wed. They are aware of, yet undeterred by, the sharp, edgy glares of their white neighbors, and are married in a D.C. courthouse in 1958. Before long, they are arrested in the middle of the night, rooted from their bed by police officers who consider Mildred’s obvious pregnancy less as a reason to treat her gently than as proof that her body is an abomination; Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws were crafted, in part, to stop couples from bringing interracial children into the world.
Loving, like progress, is slow, with action only coming in fits and starts. Writer-director Jeff Nichols seems to have made a concerted effort here to not to create a courtroom drama but a domestic one. (The day the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, the Lovings were at home.) Instead, we spend what feels like 45 minutes of the film’s two-hour running time watching Richard Loving slather cement on bricks, which by the end of the movie struck me as a little metaphorically-on-the-nose — ah yes, he’s laying the foundation!— even though Richard really was a construction worker.
The performances, particularly Negga’s, are almost uniformly outstanding. (The Lovings’ attorneys, played by comedian Nick Kroll and Jon Bass, seem to have stumbled onto the set from some other, far less subtle, movie.) But the film they serve is so intent on portraying the Lovings exactly as they are — an ordinary couple, raising ordinary children, trying to live ordinary lives — that the result might feel awfully quiet, even lacking, to audiences used to films in which our heroes speak at Sorkin-speed and are prone to giving galvanizing speeches at every turn. For a story about something that history classes teach us is so big (a civil rights battle in which true love conquered all), the movie is remarkably minimalist. It is full of stillness and silence.
After the election, “normalizing” became the buzzword of the moment. Typically normalizing came up when people wanted to warn against the too-quick acceptance of Trump, and all the hateful vitriol he spewed on his way to the Oval Office, as if it were all nothing to raise an eyebrow over.
But there is a scene in Loving that is, in its way, also about normalizing: Life photographer Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) visits the Lovings at home to document them for the magazine. The pictures — those taken in the movie are replicas of the real images published in 1966 — show the Loving family caught in the act of regular, recognizable domesticity. Mildred and Richard, along with their children, are photographed talking on their porch, walking hand-in-hand, playing in their backyard. In the most iconic shot from the issue, Richard is lying down on the couch, his head in Mildred’s lap; she is balancing a cigarette between two fingers, and laughing. They look as normal as can be.