Thursday, February 9, 2017

Moonlight and the Danger of A Single Story

My friend Don and I have instituted what we call "movie Mondays," our attempt to see all of the Academy Award nominated films before the Oscar production at the end of the month. This week we finally got to see "Moonlight." Let me say, unequivocally that I found it to be a beautifully shot, quiet film with some outstanding performances, especially Ashton Sanders as the teen, Chiron, struggling with his sexual identity, and Naomi Harris as his mom.

The problem arose in the third part of the film when Chiron is a young adult, now a drug dealer like his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali), living in Atlanta where his mother is in a drug rehabilitation facility. I turned to Don and said, "I wonder how the writer went from being a drug dealer to being an award winning playwright?" As a librarian, I had to immediately go home and investigate.

Of course what I found out is that neither Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose 2003 theatre piece "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" was written as an entry to graduate school, nor Barry Jenkins, the screen writer and director of the movie, had ever been drug dealers, not remotely close. Yet they have been participating in world-wide interviews speaking about the semi-autobiographical nature of their film collaboration.

I'm confident that they don't intend to mislead audiences but it will happen nevertheless. Both men grew up in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida, during the crack epidemic of the '80's. Each had mothers who succumbed to addiction. McCraney's mom died. Jenkins' came out on the other side. McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight. Each attended the same fine arts high school in Miami that set them on the path to higher education and success. McCraney holds a degree from DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, Jenkins from Florida State.  

One of my favorite authors and speakers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a famous TED Talk about the danger of a single story.
Her talk is really about ignorance, ignorance and lack of imagination when it comes to the American world view of Africa's many countries and their diversity. Don argues vehemently that the same ignorance holds true about America's view of African Americans and he hates it when filmmakers play into this single story, ie: The Butler, The Help, Fences, Twelve Years a Slave. Hidden Figures is the recent notable exception. 

So the question is, why didn't McCraney and Jenkins write the full story of their wonderful lives? Why didn't they show Chiron going on to college, accepting and loving himself as a gay, Black man in America? Why did they leave audiences to believe that the only way up and out of neighborhoods like Liberty City is through a life dealing drugs? Why the single story when the actual story is so much more compelling and uplifting? Don is writing to McCraney and Jenkins with these questions. I'll let you know if he gets answers.

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