Ali & Moonlight: An Analysis of Two Films About Love, Race, & Survival
Both Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight posit the idea that oppressive societal expectations and judgements will forever taint relationships. These are two films situated in two worlds that are significantly different; however, racism presents itself in both of these stories to an extreme and deplorable degree. More specifically, both of these films address the specific issues that arise when two people enter into a relationship in a society that sees those two people being together as unethical for whatever reason. Over the course of both stories, these characters find themselves adapting to the views of their respective societies as a means of social survival. Both films end with a reconciliation of sorts, and an implied hope for the future of the relationship. Overall, these films share several similarities thematically, but differ in their contextual details, and the specifics of the two individuals in their respective relationships.
To speak generally, both of these films discuss the correlation between love and racial dynamics. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul is a love story between an older German woman, and a younger Moroccan man in Germany in the 1970’s. Moonlight is a love story between two young African-American men in Miami in the present day. Inherently, the differing locations and time periods have different specific effects on the relationships; however, both stories deal with racism in an acute way. In the Fassbinder film, Ali is faced with prejudice in post-Nazi Germany due to the fact that he’s an immigrant and a person of color, and Emmi becomes a social outcast because of their relationship; a scene in which Emmi’s fellow tenants completely and utterly ignore her during their lunch demonstrates this idea. In Moonlight, the racial component in Chiron and Kevin’s relationship is perhaps less straightforward, but is equally significant. Both Chiron and Kevin, in having to deal with the institutional racism that created the oppressive nature of their shared environment, have to hide their relationship due to the stigma attached to homosexuality. This is underscored in a heartbreaking scene in which Kevin is pressured into beating up Chiron despite their relationship. While these stories differ in terms of plot and setting, they also have profound similarities in the themes they explore.
In keeping with these similar themes, these two films also implicitly deal with the identity and physicality. In the Fassbinder film, the differences between Ali and Emmi are obvious; their differences in age, physical appearance, and cultural backgrounds are heavily expressed throughout the story. Emmi, at a certain point, begins to fetishize Ali while also expressing the xenophobic ideology of her friends as a means of reacquainting herself with them; one scene shows Emmi encouraging her friends to touch Ali, objectifying him and causing him to storm off, which she chalks up to his “foreigner mentality”. The relationship becomes even more strained after Emmi’s refusal to make couscous leads to Ali having an affair with a bartender with whom he previously knew; in many ways, Emmi’s unfortunate collapse under the social pressure to fit in, and refusal to acknowledge his culture leads to the biggest rift in their relationship. Moonlight deals with identity in a different way. The film is broken up into three sections that symbolize three different stages in Chiron’s life, and are titled with three different names that all refer to him. In the third section, entitled ‘Black’, Chiron has been out of prison and dealing drugs, in addition to having undergone a complete physical and mental transformation that causes Kevin to barely recognize him when they reunite in Miami. Even though he is able to rekindle their relationship on some level, Chiron has had to conform to what society sees as an African-American male to survive. In both of these films, societal bigotry and intolerance inform the characters’ sense of self in a major way.
The thematic similarities between Jenkins’ film and Fassbinder’s film are pretty compelling. They are both, in their own ways, scathing social commentaries of the unacceptable racial dynamics in their respective countries. However, the comparison between these two films don’t come without several differences; Moonlight deals specifically with the modern day treatment of homosexuals within both the African-American community and the U.S. as a whole, while Ali: Fear Eats The Soul comments on racism and xenophobia amongst white Germans in the 1970’s. Both of these films demonstrate the heart-wrenching effects of racism within the context of a romantic relationship between two people, and the differences between the two films are all conscious decisions made by the director to portray the specific aspects of the character’s involved, and more importantly, to act as a reflection of the world in which these characters are situated.