Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the 2017 Best Picture nominees. All of the articles are available as a pdf package here.
Intellectually, we understand what it means to be “bathed in God’s grace.” But what might it actually look like? Moonlight, a nominee for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, offers an answer.
Taking a cue from its title, the movie casts a soft glow on its main character, who otherwise endures a harsh life. Moonlight details three distinct periods in the life of a young man named Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes at different ages in the character’s life). Growing up black, gay, and poor in a rough Miami neighborhood, Chiron knows little love and almost no peace. And yet even as writer-director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton document his daily struggles, they light Chiron with what can only be described as the aching color of compassion. Much of the artistry has to do with the care they take to capture the particular hues and contours of the various actors’ skin, something films featuring African-Americans don’t always bother to do.
One scene displays this luminousness particularly well. As a small boy, Chiron finds an unlikely protector in a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan occasionally takes him to the beach for swimming lessons. During one such outing, Juan holds the child gently in the water. As Jenkins’ camera discreetly watches between the waves and sparkling sunlight, an incredible tenderness and peace overwhelms the screen. For a moment, Chiron is quite literally bathed in grace.
It’s God’s beneficence that Moonlight best reflects.
A post about the imagery of the Psalms from Ligonier Ministries notes that biblical references to the light of God’s face are usually meant to convey three things: “his glory, his beneficence, and his love of righteousness.” It’s God’s beneficence that Moonlight best reflects—a granting of momentary mercy, a blessing of recognition, a hint of what could be. As I watched, I was reminded that God sees us, no matter who or where we are, and that his desire upon seeing us is to bring us closer to him.
Reunion, notably, is the theme of the film’s final third, when Chiron—now a bulked-up drug dealer himself—hesitantly visits a friend from high school with whom he had had a violent falling out. Their tentative, patient reacquaintance takes place in a late-night diner, amidst the quiet clinking of dishes and beneath a lamp’s slow glow. Throughout the film, but here particularly, Moonlight mirrors the light-infused hope of Isaiah 60, which looks forward to something even greater than what the movie’s narrative offers:
The sun shall be no more
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give you light;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified.
The least one shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
in its time I will hasten it.
This is the prophetic hope of God’s incomparable light, should we accept it. That goes for you, for me, and for kids born black, gay, or poor, like Chiron.