In a year of cinematic riches, it is hard to name a best movie of the year. Manchester by the Sea gave us glimpse into the kind of bitter realities that turned many Americans to grim thoughts and grimmer politics. Jackie was a sadly appropriate narrative of a woman in politics who has suffered loss, and the men who tell her what to do. La La Land offered wistful escapism to a world where dreams are all that matters. Regardless of which of these worthy films you put at the top of your year-end list, Moonlight is sure to be the most enduring film of 2016. This is because Moonlight is the only film of the year that offers a more optimistic vision of the future while confronting the full weight of the evils that persist in 2016. All of these films have moments of beauty, but only Moonlight is about finding the beauty as we grope through life’s immeasurable darkness and pain.
The aftermath of the Democratic Party’s collapse on election night has been dominated by a discussion of identity politics. Commentators have boiled down the infighting between the Bernie and Hillary wing of the party to “identity” versus “class.” Moonlight demonstrates the stupidity of this argument without getting encumbered with preachy storytelling. The main character, Chiron (played by three different actors during the film, each of them revelatory in their own way), is black and gay and poor and the son of a drug addict, and all of these things inform his life. He can no more peel away one of these layers of his identity than he can peel away his own skin.
Unlike some of the year’s lesser films, like Snowden and Hidden Figures, Moonlight doesn’t lean on its politics to tell its story. The film doesn’t demand your attention because its subject is so very important. Moonlight meets its characters where they live and attempts to find a light in circumstance that seem so utterly dark.
If you list the scenes and plot arcs of the film, Moonlight sounds wholly depressing. A drug dealer goes to prison. A drug addict neglects her son. A bullied student goes to prison and then becomes a drug dealer himself. The great brilliance of Moonlight is that the film manages to find optimism, hope, and beauty in between the harsh realities of life. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, teaches our young, neglected hero how to swim. For a brief moment, the characters and the audience are transported out of time and away from their problems. This happens again toward the end of the film in a lovely scene between two old friends in a greasy spoon diner near closing time. There are years of pain and heartache built up between Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and his old friend and almost lover Kevin (André Holland). Instead of meditating on that, the scene focuses on home-cooked meals, jukebox songs, and the kind of gentle ball-busting that occurs between old friends realizing just how old they are.
Even in its moments of greatest pain, Moonlight finds beauty. There are a few scenes in the film that may stick in your mind for days and weeks and months after you leave the theater. One of the most heartbreaking and most memorable is Chiron’s (Alex Hibbert) confrontation with Juan. At that point, Chiron is just a boy, but he is beginning to understand the way things work. He asks Juan if he is a drug dealer. We watch Juan closely as he watches one of the only pure things in his life—his mentorship of Chiron—crumble. To this point, he has had so much to say, but now, he’s at a loss. He struggles and stares and stammers until he manages to choke up the right words. He finally, quietly utters the truth that will take something so precious from him.
Just as we have a choice of how to live our lives after 2016, we also have a choice of how to remember 2016. We can remember the brand of dumb, blind anger that engulfed the country, or we can remember the positive forces that persisted despite the creeping darkness. With the brilliant acting that captures the small, lovely moments between life’s big moments, the camerawork that wrings every ounce of beauty out of its South Florida locale, the lighting that does poetic justice to each body captured on film, and the idea that love can triumph despite endless obstacles, we owe it to ourselves to remember 2016 by remembering Moonlight.