And the Nominees Are . . . Moonlight

Editors’ Note: In anticipation of the 89th Academy Awards on February 26,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. This post contains no spoilers.

A while back, I wrote an essay for Church Life Journal in which I argued that, before a theology of women or a theology of men can be articulated, what is needed is a theology of empathy, in which both women and men learn to encounter the other as an extension of the self, to enter into the experience of the other—without losing the essential qualities of the self—in order to better understand the other, and in the process, come to a better understanding of the self. I remember thinking at the time that a theology of empathy had implications beyond gender relations, that this was something essential for all human relationships—that empathy could serve as a foundation for dialogue between people of different races, religions, political affiliations, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, sexual orientations, even ages.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that empathy is the precursor to charity. It is the vital first step toward the love of neighbor, which, in the words of Simone Weil, “simply means being able to say to [our neighbor]: ‘What are you going through?’”[1] Empathy is what Harper Lee described through her moral compass Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You can never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view. . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

I wrote in the introductory post for this year’s Oscars series that the truly great films have the capacity to change the hearts and minds of their audiences. They do this precisely by cultivating empathy. When we watch a film, we enter into the story of the characters, real or fictitious; we walk around in their skin for a couple of hours and learn to consider things from their perspective, and if it is indeed a truly great film, we may just leave the theater different people than we were when we went in, because we’ve come to a greater understanding of ourselves by trying to understand other people.

For me, Moonlight is one such great film. Set in Miami, director Barry Jenkins’ film centers around the unfolding life of Chiron, a young African American man, following him from his boyhood (“Little”) to his adolescence (“Chiron”) to young adulthood (“Black”). Each of the film’s three chapters opens up a world that audience members might only experience second-hand through the medium of film or television: a world of poverty and drugs, a world of violence, a world of discovering one’s sexuality in the midst of such poverty, drugs, and violence. Given my background and life experience, I would consider myself to be one such audience member: the worlds of Moonlight are worlds that I have never encountered first-hand, and so they are worlds that I can only enter to the extent that I am able to practice empathy—entering in the first immediate instance into the experience of the film’s characters, and in the second more expansive instance into the experience of real-life people who abide in these worlds so different from the one I inhabit.

Moonlight invites viewers into these complicated worlds through its subtlety and nuance, through Jenkins’ uncanny ability to uncover the lyricism, even beauty, of objectively difficult and dangerous circumstances. As a child, Chiron’s only male role model is a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), whose merchandise is the very reason Chiron’s own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) cannot provide him with the love and care he needs and deserves. As an adolescent, it is Chiron’s relationship with his friend Kevin that leads him further down the path of self-discovery even as he faces ridicule and violent bullying from other classmates for the person he is becoming, and as an adult, it is this friendship with Kevin to which Chiron returns when he finally comes face to face with who he really wants to be.

It would have been all too easy to skim the surface of these relationships, but the beauty of Moonlight is that it refuses to reduce these characters to caricatures, thereby also rendering us incapable of doing so. Juan demonstrates a deeply moving tenderness toward Chiron in the way he cares for him and provides for him, teaches him to swim and how to be a man. Similarly, Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provides stability in her steadfastness and her inimitable knack first for drawing the silent child with the penetrating gaze out of his shell and later for holding him accountable as a teenager. Even Paula exhibits a tortured, relentless love for her son at the various stages of his life. Yet it is Kevin especially who helps Chiron discover himself in an encounter that, even years later, proves to be the touchstone for Chiron in determining the man he wants to be and the life he wants to live.

The performances in Moonlight are, quite simply, stunning. The three actors who play Chiron as a child (Alex R. Hibbert), as an adolescent (Ashton Sanders), and as an adult (Trevante Rhoades) create a unified portrait of this young man throughout the various chapters of his life; each of them in turn communicates more through a look than any writer could through pages of dialogue. The same is true for the two actors who play Kevin (Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), as well as Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, and Naomie Harris. It is the actors’ remarkable empathy for the characters they portray (for acting is a supreme exercise in empathy)—their own ability to enter into the experience of another—that in turn enables audience members to empathize with Chiron as his story unfolds on the screen. In addition, it is director Barry Jenkins' remarkable empathy for this story as a whole that enables his creation of a world that is at once inviting and disconcerting, a world that beckons us into it even as it makes us unsure of it.

For in the end, empathy is a risky endeavor: we leave behind our assumptions and assertions and we leave ourselves open and vulnerable to having those assumptions and assertions challenged, even upended. And yet, it is precisely when our assumptions and assertions are challenged by truths hitherto unknown or inexperienceable but for empathy that we are able to grow in our understanding of other people, and in so doing, grow in our understanding of ourselves. Ultimately, this growth in self-awareness by learning to practice empathy for others is the invitation that Moonlight offers to its audience.

[1] Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: HarperPerennial, 2009), 64.


Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music. She is the author of Praying the Rosary Together.

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