Moonlight, Manchester depict two Americas divided by race
The storylines of Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, two of the most widely acclaimed films of 2016, are remarkably similar, yet each describes two very different Americas.
Each is a compelling existential tale that focuses on a male central character and his relations with his family within a defined, culturally homogeneous community. In Manchester, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is expected to assume guardianship of his nephew after the boy’s father has been struck down prematurely by heart disease. In a flashback later in the film, we discover that the reluctant guardian once had his own family, which he lost when his two daughters were burned to death in a fire he contributed to, a tragedy that also split apart his marriage. The role earned Affleck the Golden Globe award last night for best actor in a dramatic role.
In Moonlight, which was honored as the best dramatic film of the year by Golden Globes, we follow the life of Chiron, who was portrayed by three different actors as a boy, teenager and an adult. Raised by a single mother, Chiron struggles with his identity and sexual orientation, first as a bullied schoolboy and later as an adult ex-convict and drug dealer.
Each film evokes a strong sense of place. For Manchester, it is white, working- and lower middle-class suburban Boston, whereas most of Moonlight unfolds in an economically marginalized, African-American section of urban Florida, presumably Miami. Yet despite the similarities in the stories, the films together suggest there would be little chance that these worlds would ever intersect in real life.
I don’t recall a single Black character in Manchester or a white character in Moonlight. The films are set in same country, but they depict two Americas separated by a centuries-old racial chasm. Chandler’s loss and Chiron’s quest are in many ways universal; their respective experiences cannot be racialized as distinct to any specific group. Yet we know, as attested to daily in the headlines, these two Americas seldom encounter each other, so that even the commonalities of the human condition, ties that ought to bind, are unknown to each other.