Taking a Lesson from Moonlight

A few weeks ago, when I walked out of the theater after seeing Moonlight, I experienced a feeling akin to what I felt three days ago when I closed the cover of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and sat back and took a long, audible breath. It was the same feeling I experienced last week, when I heard “O Holy Night” sung in that way—that specific, hard-to-define way—that makes my eyes sting. As winter deepens and we inch closer to whatever wood-burning or LED-flickering incarnation of the primal fire we burn inside our homes, we enter an old, old season. The Oldest Season, perhaps: the season for telling stories.

During these indoor days, the stories will come to us on paper and on the screen. They will be set to music or spoken across dinner tables. They will entertain us. They will teach us. They will make us forget, and they will make us remember. The stories will be many, but only a few of them will be good. I mean, Really Good. The kind of good that makes us feel something in our bodies that is cellular and synaptic, the sense of a human message transmitted and received.

You know the difference.

Here’s how I feel it: In the case of a movie that is Not-Moonlight, I walk out of the theater. Darkness converts to daylight; there is no gray. No middle space of transition. Whatever images were flipped onto the retina screens of my eyes have not been impressed elsewhere in my mind. The gnawing in my stomach is ordinary hunger. I am thinking about grading those Frankenstein essays or if I should get into that interminable Women’s Restroom line or if I can hold it until I get home and why I don’t know the names of the members of the Electoral College.

In short, life resumes. Film forgotten.

Alternatively, after Moonlight, I walk out of the theater, and I blink—and blink again. The emotional and physical lines of the world of the film persist into the lobby, out into the streets. The light has an unreal quality. I have forgotten to turn on my phone. Back in the car, words are not easily retrieved or exchanged. Not right away, anyway. A hunger gnaws here, too, but it’s the hunger that comes from wanting to talk about it. I want to find a quiet place to sit and with others, unpack what we’ve just seen and heard.

Really Good Stories have an impact. They elicit a response. They foster connection.

There is, of course, no set of instructions to guide or govern the writing of such stories, but as one who works in the medium of words, I often find it useful to look towards other forms of storytelling (film, music, sculpture, etc.) to understand more broadly what qualities define a good story.

Without spoiling the film for you (I promise), I’m going to suggest that Moonlight succeeds in achieving three such qualities:

1. A Sense of Necessity:
One has the sense that nothing in this film was gratuitous. What profanity there was felt necessary. No other word could have carried that emotion. What sex there was felt necessary.The expression of the bodies achieved a crucial unity or alienation or some aching combination of the two. The amount of time spent exploring a chapter in the young boy’s life was enough.

I don’t have an equation for knowing what is necessary in a story and what is not.

I do know this: My grandmother made biscuits by thrusting her hands into the bowl to assess whether the dough was too sticky (less flour) or too dry (more buttermilk). Before the biscuits went in the oven, she made three light indentations on the surface of each one. There was no reason, but it was absolutely necessary. And the biscuits stayed in the oven for as long as it took to walk down the driveway, retrieve the mail from the postbox, and get back to the kitchen. Any longer was… well, unnecessary.

A lot of practice and a fair amount of intuition: I believe that’s how necessity gets measured.

2. Space for the Imagination:
As a teacher of high school English, I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to leverage—and not
heedlessly submit—to a generation that reads its stories in images rather than in words. I am
struck and often inspired by how deeply visual my students are. I also worry that much of what they pull up on their screens does not give their young minds (or any mind, for that matter) enough credit for its imaginative scope. Too much of the work of the imagination is done for them. This is love, the screen says. This is violence. This is sex. This is beauty. All the spaces are filled in. How does the imagination not grow lazy? How do the muscles of it not atrophy?

In films like Moonlight, in stories of impact, spaces exist that are not filled in for us. Some words remain unspoken. Some questions remain unanswered. Some motivations remain unknown. And that’s okay, because while the mind does not like to wander about in total darkness, it’s usually pretty happy doing the kind of digging that leads to discoveries about the Self and Others.

Like the best writing, the best movies provide us with a sense of the outline so that we can go wild inside the open space. The sandbox and the coloring book are satisfying, in part, because the limits provide a defined, small and entirely manipulative space. You can dig to China. You can paint the elephant purple. Confident in the outline, the capacity for depth emerges.

3. Attention & Slowness:
In the final act of Moonlight, it’s time for that long-awaited conversation. One character
prepares a meal for another in the back of a Florida diner. The camera focuses in on the blue
gas light of the stove. We hear metal-on-metal of the pot against the burner. The preparation is
deliberate. The proportions are generous. The plate comes together slow enough to taste.

It’s a stunning scene, and the pace of it defies the rapid clip of our daily lives. It forces us to look. It asks us to get up close and to pay attention. The camera presses us up against gestures, expressions, and exchanges that often go overlooked. Look at how the face contorts when it cries. Hear the ocean from this place and from this body which is—and is not—your place and your body. Sit inside the silence of that unwanted response longer than what is comfortable. As Carl Honore wrote in his work, In Praise of Slowness, “The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections—with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds.” It’s hard not to recognize the humanity of a person or the beauty of a thing when you are asked to really see it.

In short, Really Good Stories contain openings. We are invited to enter, rather than forced inside, and we recognize the space within as familiar, because it is deeply human. This is what Moonlight achieves and what we hope our own stories will achieve in this particularly rich season for telling.



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