Comparing the Use of Stereotypes in Moonlight and Life on the Road

Warning: This article contains mild spoilers for both Moonlight and Life on the Road.

On the face of it, recent Best Picture winner Moonlight and Ricky Gervais’s The Office spinoff Life on the Road appear to have very little in common. One is a metaphor-filled, symbolic journey of a man’s struggles in black America whilst the other is a mockumentary about the fading dreams of a middle-class white British man. However, take a deeper look at each film and it becomes clear that both films share themes of masculinity and societal expectation, with each successfully using cliché and stereotypes to their advantage as they build complex characters.

In the opening two-thirds of Moonlight, lead character Chiron is shown to be a peaceful, tender, frightened boy who is struggling to find his place in the world. However after years of bullying and torment, as well as the only male figure he has to look up to (despite being kind) being a drug dealer, he inevitably cracks to external pressure and adopts the image of the media-created, reductive “black drug dealer” type. Like it or not, the stereotype of a black American is that of Black in the final act of Moonlight; a golden-grilled, hench, rap music listening, fast car driving, drug dealer who flashes the cash. The fact that Black has become what’s expected of him, and what people imagine him to be, because of his class, gender, and race, is a huge part of what makes Moonlight so powerful as a piece of cinema.

Black

He may be the stereotype but he is also a lot more complex than that. Never before has a film managed to so successfully give a detailed portrait of such a character and to do so by both embracing and breaking the stereotype enhances the film’s message. In the final third of Moonlight, we see Black has become a victim, not of himself or any individual but of all society. He has been corrupted by societal expectation, been forced to “build himself up hard” in order to survive. He has become something he’s not because of a fear to stand up and admit he’s different. Black men are supposed to like cars and girls, gold teeth are supposed to look cool to them and if he, as a black man, admits he doesn’t like those things then he not only loses respect but is seen as less of a man. As far as he can see, the way he was taught to see, there is nothing good about being different; difference has a negative connotation and the only way to live (without being bullied) is to follow the status quo.

Now take the basics of this message and shift the context to middle-class Britain and you are given Life on the Road. Whilst this no-holds-barred satire on British culture takes a vastly different angle, the message that the audience comes away with is the same.

Yes, Life on the Road may seem more trivial because of its setting and the use of comedy, but that does not mean make its meaning any less important. Just because audiences have met David Brent before and he has had a more privileged upbringing than Chiron does not make him any less of a victim to society than Chiron. Just as the comedy does not stop him from being a complex character. Brent, just like Chiron, was raised in a world that from the inside can appear to have no way out. The middle-class, particularly those of a generation ago, were groomed by the education system into accepting that the only way to be happy is to get a stable income and therefore they should simply have office jobs. There’s the stigma that even if they dreamed of being something more (even just slightly so), they would never get it. Brent is a character that is the epitome of one raised such a way. This use of the stereotype of an office drone is a huge part of what made The Office so effective, it was relatable to a majority of people. The fact that most of Life on the Road’s audience have met a ‘David Brent’ in real life is incremental to his character and is the most important part of both the comedy and more dramatic elements within both the film and the series.

By having Brent risk his life-savings to chase the clichéd fantasy of becoming a rock star, Life on the Road is able to use the ensuing comedy as a way of breaking down the barriers of social expectation, only this time the audience are the society judging him. Much of the comedy in Life on the Road comes from cringe humour forced on by the awkward situations Brent puts himself in; be it his misogynistic jokes or his unwillingness to see that he’s not accepted.No character in the film even tries to understand Brent or how lost he is, they instead simply put up with him and even openly mock him. He is an unwanted guest at his own party as those around him see him more as a paycheck than a human being. Even watching the film you feel the same: it’s funny to watch Brent because he appears to be both a hopeful dreamer and a desperate failure. But in fact he’s neither of those things, he is simply a man who is lost and afraid to admit to himself who he really is.

David Brent

The man David Brent thinks he is, is modeled on stereotype – he sees a ‘real man’ as one of two things – the Mick Jagger rock star or the lewd talking, lager drinking office worker you meet at the pub. Brent is neither of these but feels that to be successful in life he has to be both or else he is not really a man. This is why the audience laugh when Brent makes inappropriate jokes or performs an action that could be deemed sexist/racist. We know that deep down he doesn’t mean the things he says/does, he is just someone trying to fit in by copying the actions of those whom he thinks are popular. This means that for all its laugh out loud moments, Life on The Road actually provides a more depressing look on the world than Moonlight.

In Moonlight you are left with a sense of hope and acceptance; although you don’t know what happens after the credits you feel that Black will be able to change his ways and become something closer to his true self. You feel that because he has finally accepted he is a gay man, he will find a way to be accepted into society, or at least you hope he will. Individuality has beaten prejudice and stereotype. Life on the Road, however, leaves you with a sense that stereotypes have won. David Brent doesn’t really discover who is but simply finds himself back where he started. Brent is the subject of pity from both the audience and the sub-characters. He is still in denial as to who he really is, he has missed the final act in his own coming-of-age story.

It’s interesting to compare these two films because they both view the same subject matter in very different ways and from two very different cultural standpoints. When it comes down to it, both films are about men who are afraid of admitting who they are to the rest of the world and instead fall into the categories that society has designated for them. This makes both films familiar and relatable because many people struggle to accept who they are. What these films both do excellently, however, is highlight the pressure that society as a whole puts on people. There is so much pressure from all corners of society to be a certain way because of factors such as class, race, gender and sexuality that it is almost impossible not to be seen by others as some sort of stereotype or label. Both films, though, give you a sense that there is something more, that whilst stereotypes exist they can be broken and individuality is something to be treasured. Yes, it’s difficult to be yourself but is not better to be accepted as Chiron ultimately is rather than pitied like David Brent.

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Jacob Williams

Also known as J, Jake, Big J, Shakey Jake, Jacumba da Cucumba, Obi-wan Jakobi, Goggles and Curly. Currently undergoing a Film-a-Day challenge and working on a time travel feature film.

Jacob Williams

Also known as J, Jake, Big J, Shakey Jake, Jacumba da Cucumba, Obi-wan Jakobi, Goggles and Curly. Currently undergoing a Film-a-Day challenge and working on a time travel feature film.

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