Early in the film Moonlight, released this past week, a young boy named Chiron asks his mentor Juan how he can know that he isn’t defined by the homophobic slurs his mother calls him. “You know what you know,” Juan tells him. It is one of the most generous moments Moonlight depicts in Chiron’s life—one where Chiron is given the chance for self-understanding beyond any outside doubt or description.
Moonlight is an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert as a young child, Ashton Sanders as an adolescent, and Trevonte Rhodes as an adult) is a Black Miami resident navigating both his sexuality and his relationship to his mother. The film follows a chronology in three parts, each titled with the moniker Chiron acquires in each phase of his life: first “Little,” then “Chiron,” and much later in his life, “Black.” Using these titles, the movie dramatizes his shifting identity, and his struggle against the names he is given to understand it.
American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold) is also centered around an individual’s quest for self-determination, that of a Black teenager named Star (Sasha Lane). But where Moonlight is preoccupied with the confines of identity, American Honey focuses on Star’s economic marginalization. In the film’s opening scenes, Star joins up with a band of roving adolescents she meets in a Kmart parking lot in Missouri; the group traveling across the country, hawking magazine subscriptions for easy cash. Star quickly discovers new constrictions in her nomadic lifestyle; she is forced to stay in cheap motel rooms across the Midwest, paid for by an obscure parent corporation and its domineering representative Krystal (Riley Keough). Like a Pied Piper in a sports car, Krystal leads the van of teenagers door-to-door, motel to motel, all of them following a dream of financial security on a path they cannot control.
While the critical dialogues surrounding Moonlight and American Honey, two widely acclaimed films released this fall, are separate, they often come to resemble one another far more closely than the films themselves do. This is largely because of a terminology used to evaluate both films’ success, shared among many reviews published in mainstream publications in the last month; in particular, many reviewers raved about each film’s sense of empathy and compassion.
The list of such reviews is extensive: In a review published by the Seattle Times, Moira MacDonald claimed that watching Moonlight might feel “as if you’ve spent time in someone else’s dreams and woke up understanding who they are.” Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote that American Honey “will bring you into a world that is parallel to yours.” The New Yorker cites its “empathetic power;” the Atlantic praises Arnold’s “remarkable empathy.”
The repetition of the phrase across many reviews suggests some shared sense of what empathy is, and a shared opinion about how American Honey or Moonlight fulfills its value. Yet seldom do any of these writers define what empathy means in the context of the movies they are describing; its meaning is vague, taken for granted, or merely implied. For two films whose narratives rely upon their protagonists’ singular struggles, these claims of empathy carry hidden harm. At best, their vagueness fails to recognize each film’s distinct, urgent project. At worst, their logic works to undo those projects entirely.
Any use of the term “empathy” requires both a subject and object; Suzanne Keen, author of Empathy and the Novel, provides a model of empathy’s use in artistic creations with her description of “narrative empathy,” the “sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition.” In this definition, someone has to empathize with someone or something else. This makes the term’s use in a film review slippery: the reviewers using it often fail to specify whose empathy they are really talking about, and whether they are empathizing with the fictional subject, or the reality those subjects attempt to represent. While these critics are using empathy as a criteria for these films’ success, a movie, as an inanimate collection of edited scenes and camera angles, can’t have empathy in itself. Its audience, however, can. And many of these reviews are celebrating the ways either film enables the viewer’s empathy with the film’s narratives, while attributing that emotion to the film itself. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post raved that Moonlight’s viewers would see “a perfect film” which has “a capacity for empathy and compassion.”
Erasing the audience in this way serves to fundamentally undermine an accurate conception of empathy as an interaction between two agents; that erasure also forecloses a consideration of those agents’ specific identities. Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune wrote that Moonlight benefits from “an observant, uncompromised way of imagining one outsider’s world so that it becomes our own.” His claim, and similar ones made by other mainstream white critics, assumes two falsehoods. The first is a kind of homogenous audience—one that shares a vision of “our” own world, and which positions Chiron’s world as diverging from that norm. The second is a sense of inclusion: an audience which imagines a world in order to collectively enter it, and to embody it while they watch.
The viewpoints represented in these two films are so much more than generalized “outsider” perspectives, to be taken on and cast off by an audience over the course of two hours. Watching Moonlight, it is impossible to separate Chiron’s experiences of his sexuality with those of being Black, or of having a mother struggle with addiction, or of living in a low-income neighborhood in Miami; it’s impossible to define Chiron’s experience in these terms too. The movie is far more concerned with his self-definitions in the face of inscribed limitations on identity. Early in the film, Chiron’s childhood mentor, Juan, tells him that he used to be called Blue back in his previous home in Cuba, for the way that the shine of the moonlight reflected off the color of his skin. Chiron asks him if his name is still Blue; Juan says no, and explains, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be.”
Empathy, as nebulously called upon by many white reviewers, erases such possibilities of individuality within identity, in favor of an emphasis on ‘including’ the audience in a homogenized ‘outsider’ perspective. David Sims of the Atlantic called Moonlight “specific and sweeping… focused and personal.” Sims treats the personal as separate than the specific, a broader category. But if Moonlight is “personal,” who is it personal for?
A.O Scott, the New York Times’ resident film critic, published a review of American Honey that also obscures the truly personal aspects of the film, largely by presuming facets of Star’s self-understanding. He paints her identity in broad categorical strokes: “being young, poor, female and unloved is a raw deal, for sure, but Star’s instinct for survival and her appetite for pleasure inoculate her against pity.” It’s a statement that harms more than it clarifies, declaring aspects of Star’s experience as objects of pity which Star is obligated to transcend. Later in his review, Scott claims that the movie’s “awfulness and grandeur [is] a product of Star’s restless Emersonian consciousness,” and in doing so replaces that understanding with his own.
No one is reading Emerson in American Honey. That language, meant to describe Star’s perspective and interiority, is certainly not her own. Instead, her first taste of freedom is dancing to Rihanna with her new friends on top of the Kmart checkout counters. “We found love in a hopeless place,” they sing over and over.
In a roundtable discussion the Times published less than two weeks previous to Scott’s review, he bemoaned the fact that “The movies with black protagonists that tend to win awards—to be legitimized, in other words, as mainstream, serious and prestigious—are more often than not about exceptional figures… people whose remarkable accomplishments both ease the consciences of white viewers and mask the collective struggles and communal experiences that sustained the heroes in their work.” His transformation of Star from a teenager looking for a better life into an “Emersonian” hero does the same masking.
Examples like these constitute more than just an irresponsible phrase, or lazy film criticism. They are fundamentally skewed perceptions of the relationship between a film’s audience and its represented subjects. For example, what kinds of audiences are presupposed when representations of queer, Black life, or economically marginalized, Black female life, are termed as experiences outside of the audience’s own lives? What experiences do critics ignore when they use these narratives as shorthands for pressures of essentialized identities, to be empathized with while they are misunderstood?
Barriers of class and race are implicit in these analyses; they are also determining of who, practically, gets to participate in the film industry on multiple levels. The average price of a movie ticket rose to $8.61 in 2015, and both American Honey and Moonlight are in limited release, a mode of distribution with an often much more cost-prohibitive ticket price. Both films are likely Oscar contenders, one year after #OscarsSoWhite movement decried the Academy’s nomination of only white actors in its top four categories—for the second year in a row—sparking a much wider conversation around the institutional racism such disparities represent. Only 2% of Oscar voters in the Academy are Black, according the Guardian. The paper also reports that only 15% of Hollywood’s top roles are occupied by minority actors. A 2014 UCLA study proposed some explanation: up to 90% of Los Angeles’ talent agents are white.
Moonlight and American Honey are emerging in a moment when the conditions of their distribution and reception, both popular and critical, are anything but fully inclusive. White critics’ valorizing of their own sense of empathy, which demands an inclusion of an audience they assume to be like them, takes on a different kind of indignity in this context. Why should the audience these claims imagine as empathetic, largely white and financially secure, feel included in what they perceive to be other people’s real experiences, when the people actually experiencing those pressures aren’t included among their ranks?
If white critics’ claims of empathy imagine a false inclusion, they also neglect to recognize the real inclusivity both films can foster. Hilton Als, a queer, Black theater and film critic at the New Yorker, was achingly honest about his identification with Moonlight in his review. “Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like Moonlight?” he wrote. “Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace?” Als’ sense of his own empathy is far from other critics’ praise. His empathy, rather than taking the perspective of another narrative, allows him insight into his own. He sees, in Chiron’s story, specific pressures which have denied him empathy in his own life. “Intimacy makes the world, the body, feel strange. How does it make a boy who’s been rejected because of his skin color, his sexual interests, and his sensitivity feel?” he asks. Unlike many other critics, he phrases this understanding of Chiron as a question, not an assessment; he feels a connection based on shared identities, but his question leaves room for Chiron’s feelings about those identities, even within a fictional narrative, to be different than his own. He sees the discrete nuances of experience and identity, and the divisions and solidarities such nuances create, as essential to Moonlight itself. “Jenkins’s story is about a self-governing black society,” he writes, “no matter how fractured.”
Unlike Als, neither film’s director shared the identities they sought to represent. However, each emphasized the importance letting their subjects tell their own stories, and retaining these stories’ complications in their own work. Andrea Arnold, a white British woman, traveled across America before shooting American Honey, gathering narratives of “mag crews,” casting former “mag crew” members and passersby she met in WalMart parking lots. She told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she was reticent to explain the complicated personal motivations and emotions of her protagonists, because she “wouldn’t want to try and uncomplicate them for anybody who is about to see the film.”
In an interview with Complex magazine, Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins described his struggle as a straight Black man adapting a stage play by a queer Black man: “I’ve always considered myself an ally to LGBT causes and it was an opportunity to put that empathy into action,” he said. “And what I decided was that if I was respectful to Tarell’s voice, if I preserved his voice, then this was a way that I, as a straight man, could bring a queer story into the world and do it with the same nuance and subtlety and respect that someone who had the first-person experience would.”
The two directors’ gestures towards empathy do not try to equate their identities with those of their subjects, or embody those identities from an outside understanding. They instead respect their distance from the struggles they represent, and use it as an opportunity to highlight, even celebrate, the individuality that can emerge from those struggles. If a critic’s sense of empathy ignores this difference between an individual and the challenges they face, it also ignores a possibility of what film can accomplish: to gather a group of people in front of a screen, silent, waiting for another voice to speak and listening for what they have not already heard.
WILL WEATHERLY B’19 cried profusely and inappropriately after he saw Moonlight.