“Moonlight” and “Manchester By the Sea”, two films about American men

This is not a movie review but a societal look at two important films that premiered near the end of 2016. They are both Academy Award type films and they share the same subject. Barry Jenkins groundbreaking “Moonlight” is a portrait of manhood in a totally African American neighborhood of (perhaps ironically) Liberty City, Miami. Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea is a portrait of manhood in the totally white community of Manchester, Massachusetts.

Perhaps against stereotype, the African Americans in “Moonlight”, male and female, have greater complexity of character and emotional range than the characters in the Lonergan film. This is not a critique of “Manchester By the Sea” but a recognition that, in general, white American males have extremely constricted emotional lives. Although some of the characters in both films exhibit macho behavior, Lonergan’s main character, Lee Chandler (played by the remarkable Casey Affleck) never gets beyond his limitations. He has experienced an awful trauma, carelessly and unwittingly causing the death of his children; he can never express his grief nor can he get beyond random acts of rage and violence, sucker punching innocent people in bars. Manchester is a close community which may explain why Chandler doesn’t wind up in jail for his erratic and dangerous behavior. You feel for the character, less for his tragic error and more for his emotional imprisonment.

Chandler’s brother’s will gives custody of his sixteen year old son to Lee, without Lee knowing in advance that this would be asked of him. Hence both brothers fail to communicate their needs directly. Later in the film, Chandler requests that a friend living in Manchester take custody of the son. Once again, the problem is that Lee Chandler, like his brother, doesn’t bother to ask his nephew if he’d be willing to be adopted by the family friend. Throughout the film, we hear him say “I don’t want to talk about it.” In a powerful moment, when he meets his former wife who is pushing a baby stroller through the street, it is clear that they still love each other but that it is impossible for him to communicate this to her.

Chandler’s choice to leave his nephew and the town of Manchester is understandable. He will always be known there as the man who let his children perish. It is even understandable that he doesn’t want to break up his nephew’s life by dragging him to Quincy where he works as a janitor. The weakness is in failing to confront the emotional damage. None of the male characters in the film have a solid sense of self. Sports, in the bars and at home, blare from the television in every season; it’s often the one thing that American men, especially fathers and sons, have in common. Is this an accurate generalization of American manhood? I would have to say yes.

The American legal system and now its political system function in much the same way. A strong vindictive urge, based on anger for imagined slights or frustration with the failures of the American Dream results in scapegoating. We see much of this reactionary behavior in Trump’s unfortunate election which was, in some ways, a racist rejection of the first black president. The displaced anger is also revealed in the draconian sentencing, especially as applied to African American defendants, in the courts. It is also seen on line, where cowardly trolls hide behind anonymity to smear and attack public figures. The free floating anger is selfish and dangerous; it shows the degree to which people resist dealing with their actual problems through avoidance strategies.

And why are police not convicted of capital crimes against African American people? Because the police represent the vindictiveness of the angry people who would do the same thing if they had the chance.

The male characters in “Moonlight”, (three of them, Chiron, the same character at different ages) do display a range of emotions. One of the most daring aspects of the film is the exploration of a gay relationship between the main character and a close friend. These relationships expose young black men to attacks of all kind. In fact, every character in the film is an African American, a daring choice in and of itself. What a way for Barry Jenkins to show the segregated reality of American life, the schools, the neighborhoods! The culprit is the racism that permeates life in the USA from Maine to Florida to Nebraska, to California, to New York to Louisiana and so on.

“Moonlight” does not sugar coat the lives of these men and boys yet it humanizes them. A drug dealer with a very big heart (Juan) and his partner (Teresa) invite Chiron into their lives and try to soften his landing when he needs to escape periodically from his drug addicted and abusive mother. The horror of it is that Chiron’s mother is a customer of Juan’s. Yet you don’t feel the necessity to condemn the pusher because his “trade” is part of the landscape, like the Fuller Brush Man of the 1950’s. Indeed, when Chrion becomes a young adult, he is sporting the gold teeth (the ‘fronts’) of the drug dealer and following in the footsteps of Juan, the man he most admires. The tragedy, I think, is contained within the restrictive nature of poor black lives in America–separate and unequal. Drug dealing is a respectable profession that leads to cars and comforts that these men can not otherwise achieve. Not usually, anyway, outside of athletics or entertainment.

All to explain some of the reasons why the prisons are filled with African Americans. This was not always the case in the northern part of the USA. As Rubin Carter used to say, the prisons were ‘equal opportunity’ places, and people were imprisoned in numbers roughly proportional to their numbers out in the free world. “They served pasta fazool on Mondays, Irish stew on Tuesdays, and so on.” It wasn’t until the drug trade became an endemic part of black life that the prisons filled up with African Americans. Blacks are not born criminals, of course, but their lives, segregated schools and neighborhoods, make the world appear as a prison. They are walled off from the rest of society. Neither conservatives nor liberals have ever been prepared or able to alter this reality. Not even Obama did much to change the fabric of the unjust society. And the election of Donald Trump will bring all of this oppression back to the front pages; we are in for an era (let’s pray it’s brief) of unmasked and officially condoned racism.