Libertarians Should Go See Moonlight

The year's best movie shows the consequences of drug war authoritarianism without lecturing the audience.



I had already prepared myself for the disappointment of La La Land beating out Moonlight for the Academy Award for best movie. I saw both movies and thought Moonlight was superior in all the ways that matter to me—strong characters, powerful storytelling, and emotional impact. But Hollywood loves itself above all things, and I was prepared for another Crash versus Brokeback Mountain train wreck.

When La La Land was initially declared the winner, I simply shrugged and started shutting everything down for the night. It was only by circumstance that I powered down my computer first and still had the television on when the mistake was revealed. It was a happy surprise to me that Moonlight won, and I just wanted to take a moment to recommend anybody who identifies as a libertarian to go so the movie if they haven't yet.

If I were to describe a movie as being about a young gay black man coming of age in an extremely poor Miami neighborhood surrounded by drug culture, violence, and bullies, it may be a natural inclination to expect something very preachy and full of "Something must be done about this!" messages.

That's not Moonlight. What makes Moonlight work is that it's almost the exact opposite. It throws the viewer into the life of young protagonist Chiron and has the confidence to let us come to terms with the combination of awfulness and hopefulness of his experiences. It's a deeply personal story informed by the real world experiences of the two men behind it.

What does this have to do with libertarianism? Government institutions are shown as failing Chiron, and there's no effort to present these systems as part of the solution. School does nothing to protect him. And when he finally acts out in frustration when the violent bullying becomes too much, he finds the criminal justice system ready to come crashing down on him.

There is no lecturing about this institutional failure. It's presented as a lived-in experience. The story of Moonlight trusts the viewer to understand its deeper meaning. It's not complicated, but it is subtle. That the time jump between teen Chiron and adult Chiron includes a prison stint is handled almost like an aside.

But the movie is far from hopeless, and it's not a tragedy. This is not Brokeback Mountain recast in an urban setting during the crack epidemic. It's challenging and at times very difficult to watch play out (particularly if you were, for disclosure's sake, a gay man who also grew up dirt poor in Florida and had a mother with drug issues), but Chiron does find a path that suggests a way toward personal happiness even as it embeds him further into a life operating through some shadowy options (I'm trying not to spoil too much).

Consider Moonlight to be the film equivalent of the personal stories Reason shares about those who have been granted mercy from harsh mandatory minimum sentences. When we look at the cruelty of the drug war, the use of police in schools, and the failures of prohibition and their disparate impact on minorities, it's easy to want throw out data and just hope that makes an impression. Moonlight attaches it all to a story and invites the audience to live through the consequences of this harsh dynamic partly created by government officials (at the demand of their constituencies) without judging them and putting them on the defensive. The movie illustrates a fight for self-determination and personal happiness in a harsh environment where authority is stacked against the protagonist—something every libertarian should be able to identify with.