Must-Read Books After Watching MOONLIGHT

Note: This blog post contains spoilers — read at your own risk!

It all started with Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad. After reading it and seeing Colson in person in San Francisco, I’ve wondered whether the book was going to make it into the big screen. The good news came after I found out Barry Jenkins closed a deal to adapt Whitehead’s masterpiece for television.

I’ve never heard of Barry Jenkins but soon enough, I started seeing his name on headlines again and this time, for a movie that’s been hailed as “best of the year” — Moonlight.

I saw the movie last night at the New Mission and I saw what everyone else has seen: a three-part coming-of-age movie with layers of brokenness and tenderness, with Chiron, a gay black man at the center.

I’ve always looked up to queer black writers for their genius and while I am a queer immigrant woman of color, I realized that so many of the film’s elements have influenced a lot of my own life in three particular ways, through three brilliant poets: James Baldwin, Danez Smith and Saeed Jones.

My bookshelf beckoned:

In Saeed Jones’s book Prelude to Bruise, I reread a few of my favorite poems like Blue Prelude and After Last Light. After a particularly hard day at school, after being made fun of his demeanor, his clothes, Chiron made it to the ocean where he met up with Kevin. The latter has been the former’s sole friend. By the water, Chiron was raw, honest, vulnerable.

A moonless night cliff-side steals the sea
from us. What was sapphire beyond churlish blue

is just howl now: waves darker than closed eyelids
wreck the rocks we also can’t see. Sunlight forgot

the two of us here. The taste of salt, an ungiven kiss
on our lips. And silence is the rush of blood

in our ears, a violet pause between your question
and what I will not say. I have no answer;

my throat is the ocean now.

 —Saeed Jones, After Last Light

Chiron, Kevin (Moonlight, 2016)

When he was younger and ran away from a group of boys who was bullying him, he hid in an abandoned house where he was discovered by Juan, a drug-dealer-turned-father-figure. Every time Chiron felt like he couldn’t stay at home, with a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine, he ran off to Juan’s house where he and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monaé!) took care of him. Juan took Chiron to the beach one time, where he taught him how to swim. In spite of the dynamics of their relationship — Juan, being the drug dealer, his mother, the crack cocaine addict — the scene of teaching the young one how to swim moved me beyond words. I turned to James Baldwin with a poem from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
a little?
not get carried away
by the sounds of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath the water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.

–James Baldwin, Untitled

Juan teaching a young Chiron how to swim (Moonlight, 2016)

Lastly, I turned to Danez Smith’s [insert] boy as I thought of Chiron’s relationship with his mother. It was a tumultuous relationship, punctuated by periods of respite with Teresa (Juan had passed at this time). When he was much older, he was able to reconcile with this mother and it was in these moments that I felt like he was finally at peace. She knew he was “soft,” she knew he was suffering but her own suffering was primary. I’ll never know how this feels — a black child and his mother in pain — but in Smith’s book, I found some answers.

1. smoke above the burning bush
2. nemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. boy
10. phoenix who forgot to un-ash
11. god of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow colored coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

–Danez Smith, Alternate Names for Black Boys 

Chiron, in Atlanta (Moonlight, 2016)

Go see this movie — now. And after the movie’s done, this blog post will be here for with its poems and Chiron’s story, memorialized.

“You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.” 

I’ll be thinking and dreaming of this for days.


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