By: John Pesina
There are two moments I will never forget when I think of the first time I saw "Moonlight" in the Galaxy Highland theater off IH-35. The first was when the film’s protagonist, Chiron, escapes to the beach by train in the middle of the night. Chiron is a young black boy growing up in the midst of a tumultuous home and school environment, but he finds a moment of solace as the waves crash on the shore. His friend Kevin shows up and, after exchanging some of the most naturally-written and perfectly-delivered dialogue I’ve seen on film, they embrace in a romantic kiss. It’s a scene that perfectly encapsulates the experience of seeing "Moonlight:" the masterful, almost virtuosic cinematography and sound work is matched by the pitch-perfect performances of Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome. It’s a tender moment that, due to the rare image of two black men kissing, was simultaneously brazen and unpretentious. It brought back memories of my first time in the embrace of another man, feeling the world fall away.
But before that, it was the garbage piece-of-shit "CHiPS" trailer.
"CHiPS," for people like me who didn’t grow up in the ‘80s, was a TV cop show that I guess was famous or whatever. Because it’s a recognizable name, it’s being made into a movie in 2017. What’s more, it’s being made into one of those post-"Hangover" bro-action-comedy movies in the vein of "21 Jump Street," only with the appeal of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill (a phrase I never wanted to type) replaced with the infinite mediocrity of Dax Shepard and Michael Pena. They play cops and they’re solving, I dunno, a murder? The trailer was very thin on plot, but more than made up for that fact with an abundance of dick jokes.
Here’s one: when Dax Cop and Pena Cop meet up for the first time, Dax Cop is in his underwear in the police station locker room. Pena has a moment of quiet gay panic, and Dax Cop responds with “I mean, if you’re homophobic, it’s cool.” And then the trailer stays in this particular mode as Dax shares a naked hug with another cop (and their penises dead-ass make a velcro-noise through their boxers). At the climax of the trailer, Pena throws a naked Dax Shepard Cop into a bathtub. But not before Dax’s junk touches Pena’s mouth. Do you get the joke? Do you get it? It’s funny, right? It’s funny because penises are touching and penises touching is so gay. What a meme. Hashtag CHiPS.
There are two moments I will never forget when I think of the first time I saw "Moonlight" in the Galaxy Highland theater off IH-35.
I know enough people who didn’t know "CHiPS" existed, either as a previously-established property or an upcoming movie. I live within a tight-enough circle of communications majors, journalists, artists, people of color and LGBT folks, that what I find out about is usually pretty out-of-the-way. We all keep tabs on what we do and do not consume, and in my particular case, that means that most of the movies I watch in theaters are at what you could call “niche” theaters. Your Alamo Drafthouses. Your Violet Crowns. The theaters whose repertoire tends to cover movies that film journalists tell their film journalists friends to go see, the gatekeeper films that determine where the medium is going. Y’know: movie snobs.
I didn’t see "Moonlight" at a Drafthouse or Violet Crown. I ended up seeing it at a regular multiplex, one that was trying to push its latest 3D surround sound entertainment chair in the lobby. One where the audience wasn’t 20-30-somethings talking about who they would be keeping an eye out for at South By Southwest, but by bored teenagers just looking for something to watch.
At the theater I wanted to see "Moonlight" in, the movie was sold out. At this one, a friend and I were the only ones in attendance. At the theater I wanted to see "Moonlight" in, I imagine we would’ve seen trailers for movies I was excited to see: "I Am Not Your Negro," "Get Out," maybe "Raw." These were all films I’d heard about from friends or seen on online film journals. But the trailers I saw were depressingly within the vein of what mainstream Hollywood has been pushing for the last decade: remakes, reboots, sequels, cash-ins, all established brands with recognizable names. There was a new "Beauty and the Beast" trailer, which I hadn’t seen at all but has been hyped on Facebook. There was a new "Pirates of the Caribbean," which I had assumed had just quietly died as a franchise years ago, long before Johnny Depp put on that stupid dead bird hat. There was a trailer for the 5th "Transformers" movie, because of course there was: there is no loving God in this universe. And then there was "CHiPS." "Moonlight," by comparison, stuck out like a sore thumb.
The experience was a vague, quiet culture-shock and a deadening reminder that for everything that changes, everything stays the same. "Moonlight," in theory, should represent a Hollywood changing its tune in regards to diversity of talent and storytelling. That doesn’t mean it does – we are talking about a movie whose director, Barry Jenkins, had to share his Variety cover with director Damien Chazelle after Chazelle’s "La La Land" was mistakenly given the Best Picture Oscar that "Moonlight" had actually won. Because oh no, those sweet white people had to give back the awards they didn’t win and oh aren’t they just so nice and graceful in conceding those awards they didn’t win.
The film has been pitched, within the circles that are occupied by myself, my friends and those I admire, as a landmark cultural event that is indicative of a Hollywood changing for the better I could have seen "Moonlight" in a crowded theater with people who might have all agreed that they were witnessing a change in mainstream film. And yet, mainstream Hollywood never got the message that they were supposed to be changing for the better. In fact, nothing has changed at all. This $1.5 million movie wants to have gay black people? Okay, whatever. But also greenlight the movie where Michael Pena freaks out about Dax Shepard’s dick touching his mouth. Give that $25 million.
In the weeks since watching the film at that theater, I was reminded of the last time I felt depressed that what I’d been convinced was true of culture –that diversity and sensitivity win out in the face of crass commercialism –was proven wrong by the masses and those who wield power. The last time I’d sat in an echo chamber of other agreeing voices who all thought the same thing was in November of last year, and in the span of 24 hours I was forced to confront the fact that what I’d come to believe about my culture was wrong. That there are enough people in this world that your own sphere of influence becomes a minuscule, fragile thing. That, no, not everyone sees the world the way you do, and some people want to see what you believe in become dismantled and tossed aside.
In the weeks since watching the film at that theater, I was reminded of the last time I felt depressed that what I’d been convinced was true of culture –that diversity and sensitivity win out in the face of crass commercialism –was proven wrong by the masses and those who wield power.
So, what does that mean for my experience after seeing "Moonlight?" I think it lines up perfectly with my experience after the election, but on a much smaller scale. Yes, there are good things happening around us. Yes, stories are being told louder than they ever have before. Yes, beautiful things still exist in this world and we have the power to make ourselves be recognized. But at the same time, we have to remain aware that not everyone will agree with us when it comes to what we value. That there are enough shrill voices screaming at once that the loudest ones will be the ones heard, and those will carry the worst messages. For every moment of tenderness and heart from a movie like Moonlight, there will be a thousand disgusted velcro-dick-slaps from a movie like "CHiPS." That’s just where we are right now.