Who Is You: Moonlight, Hell or High Water, and America’s Identity Crisis
The two best dick measuring contests in 2016 film, one figurative and one literal, occur in movies that are almost diametrically opposed in genre aesthetic.
In the center of David Mackenzie’s neo-Western Hell or High Water, outlaw Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) takes a break from righteous bank robbing to indulge in casino poker, and, because he feels he must, he verbally provokes the meanest mug at the table. His opponent in the hand is a muscular Comanche. “Lords of the plain,” Tanner says. “Lords of nothing now,” the Native American corrects him. Neither gambler folds. They play out to the river card, as men do, and then stand to bump uneven chests. The dialogue here is as corny as one might expect from a showdown between an American cowboy and an American Indian, between two grown men acting out a dated child’s game without having developed into it a sense of personal maturity or cultural understanding. It’s a show of masculinity staged as a sort of intermission to the rest of Mackenzie’s chatty and sunbaked slice of social-minded Americana and an exhibition of the exact self-defeating pantomime that Tanner’s brother Toby (Chris Pine) is visibly tired of carrying on.
That scene operates to outline the same point in the same essential terms as the much less metaphoric competition that unfolds in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ film of luminescent urban poetry. When Little (the youngest version of Chiron, played by Alex R. Hibbert), walks in on classmates (including eventual life-changing fling Kevin, played here by Jaden Piner) simultaneously exposing their penises for comparison, he, like Tanner Howard, is incidentally being pulled into a performance expectation from which he gains nothing of personal value. This is Kevin’s game, not Little’s. Kevin, like Tanner, dives painfully headfirst into this empty pool with little contemplation, to the point that, just a few days after their intimate exchange as teenagers, Kevin is goaded into physically attacking Chiron by a literal child’s game designed to earn masculine acceptance. Kevin accepts these masculine exercises, because, what choice is given to him?
But Toby and Chiron, as the subjects at the forefront of their respective films, represent more contemplative men forced to react in personal development to the archetypal demands of their separate cultures—boot-and-belt-buckle Texas and an unforgiving Miami drug haven community whose sense of hope has been drained by Reagan and Clinton’s wrong-minded War on Drugs policies. Unlike Tanner and Kevin, their soulmates in struggle, Toby and Chiron are non-consenting hostages of the same terms of masculine definition. For both, perhaps the best illustration of their confusion comes in the wordless expression of unsolicited exasperation while sitting in an All-American diner.
In between robberies, after the brothers stop for a steak dinner, Tanner slips out the back leaving Toby to speak with a waitress (Katy Mixon). After a casual conversation that sees Toby give claim to a better fictional life, he pulls a wad of cash from his pocket to count a tip, but, staring at the money, he is washed over with a sense of shame and leaves the entire stack of bills, first sighing then visibly troubled with himself. What Mackenzie captures here is a glimpse of the person Toby feels he is naturally but also the person his world never allowed him to become; he is a caretaker robbed of available means for legally and morally providing care.
Black (adult Chiron played by Trevante Rhodes) pulls into a Miami diner in a luxury car blaring bass-heavy hip hop, even his driving posture borrowed from a certain masculine template. In the diner, after reintroducing himself to Kevin, Chiron sits to wait for his old friend to finish an order of the “chef’s special,” and he removes his gold plated dental jewelry. For a second, a moment much briefer than Toby’s, he looks down and seems to ask himself the question that others have been asking and then sabotaging his entire life. We see the look again when Kevin joins him and asks, “What’s with the fronts?” Kevin is, in a literal sense, referencing the removed mouthpiece, but the word “front” has several meanings when used between these two men.
Both of these only semi-fictional worlds are filled with men who are preoccupied with being men while continuously being asked who they really are by the very world that keeps them from being anything other than what they are. In very different ways, both Toby and Chiron are mentored by father-like forebears of their existential struggle. Hell or High Water lends half its runtime to Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a Texas Ranger at the end of his career who looks forward to a dreadfully hollow future in his twilight years. Marcus is unable to talk about life outside of his costumed career without referencing his dread or death; he knows nothing other than this dangerous role he has been playing for a lifetime.
Moonlight discovers Little/Chiron in an abandoned, boarded-up drug den when Juan (Mahershala Ali) tears away the plywood from the window. From then, Juan inserts himself as a positive mentor to Little, offering guidance and a second, safer home, all the while embracing the role too eagerly for it to seem like an unthought accident. Juan seeks the opportunity to be paternal, to be positive, to pull himself out of the more cold and clinical power he holds as a successful drug runner. The exchange that sees Juan speak comfortingly in response to Little’s confused questions about his sexuality (the first of only two times in the movie where Chiron’s homosexuality is discussed with anything but malice) isn’t just a forced break-from-type, it’s Juan’s recognition of the type, its influence over his culture, and his wishing it away. At his most protective, however, Juan is forced to face the same answer-less question. “Who is you!?” screams Paula, Chiron’s addict mother, as Juan pulls her from the car. Her questioning slaps Juan with a reminder that he is not a real father, that he is, in fact, a chief architect within the landscape that is almost certain to prevent Chiron from living a happy and healthy life. For all of his good intentions, Juan, in masculine performance, put the drugs in Paula’s hand and erected and then ruined those hopeless dope houses in which Chiron now seeks refuge. Juan’s empty gaze in this scene and Marcus’s post-career aimlessness illustrate the same thing: the recognition of a true self wasted by letting masculine performance dictate a lifetime of performative action.
In a year that has seen cultural identification with masculinity pushed farther away from cultural identification with personhood than it’s ever been, in a year in which male entitlement has pulled off a full figurative burning-to-the-ground of twenty-first century democracy and rejected eight years of socially progressive policy, it’s hard to overstate how important it is that Mackenzie and Jenkins both have managed to biopsy masculine archetypes in a way that doesn’t scar their traditional cinematic forms. It is so very imperative that Hell or High Water finishes as a Western and that Moonlight finishes as an urban coming of age story without either having to swerve off track to clip their social targets.
Because if the two relatively young narrative subjects are not awarded their moment of acceptance and understanding, both movies are reduced to little more than bitter diagnoses. But both Toby and Chiron are given that moment. With just one bank heist left to finish his goal of providing a better life for his family, Toby meets his son in the backyard and in a vague confession, he tells the boy that there are going to be some bad things said about the things he has done. When his son assures him that he won’t believe anything that is said, Toby is quick to correct him: “No, you believe them.” Beyond just making sure that his kid uses his mistakes as a cautionary tale, Toby is also accepting his own sense of self here. Toby understands that it is action and not identity that writes a legacy, that the old Vonnegutian rule of thumb—“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”—incorrectly presupposes choice in the matter, when that is not always the case in more modern times. In this sense, our culture’s dated design might be its biggest tragedy. Identity is an abstract prison, an impermanent drawing material susceptible to being washed away by the tides of time, love, and death. But this exchange is a paradoxically two-sided one, a statement of defeat but also the last leg of victory. With Toby’s acceptance of his own failed life giving his son his best chance to escape a similar fate, the father thereby finally succeeds as the caretaker he always hoped to be.
And when Black stands nervously at the door of Kevin’s house, the conversation like a tide moving toward and then away and then again toward the obvious topic, he finally forces a statement. In Black letting Kevin know that he has never touched another man, that he never let another man touch him, the last lines of the film see Chiron speaking honestly in a first-person statement for the first time. After three chapters having taken titles from labels that other people chose for Chiron and after seeing him grow as a quiet boy asking questions to a quieter teen avoiding conversation into an adult who completely rejects his true self, Chiron is finally saying something true about who he is. Even if it’s self-defining through what he has not done, it is rooted in the truth of who he has always been.
Early in the dreamlike meditation that is Moonlight, Juan tells a somber Chiron an anecdote about standing outside at night. “In the moonlight,” he explains, “black boys look blue.” This is just an emboldened line in a long verse of poetry, but it opens a few questions and helps with the discovery of a few explanatory interpretations.
And in the closing moments of Hell or High Water, Marcus and Toby promise to revisit their climactic conversation. Perhaps, they suggest, they might bring each other “some peace.” Knowledge of the traditional Western informs us that this is a promise of justice and death. That interpretation is not untrue. But, there’s also a sense that both are speaking toward and seeking something else, something like that singular moment where the most peaceful shot of Chiron is cut with a memory of him standing as a child under the glowing blue shine of a night sky, the man finally having grown aware that light only changes the surface’s shade, only makes the black look blue, while object permanence tells us that what sits in the light keeps its shape and substance; the object is the same object regardless of light or its absence, and what is true stays true while who we are stays who we are.
Featured Image: A24