The representation of the African-American community has been a matter of debate and discussion for a long time. Today, as we talk, celebrate, and reimagine black history through our stories and representations, we must not forget that it has not been long since the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite campaign shook Hollywood. Racism still persists and is not a thing of the past. A year later, when Barry Jenkins introduced us to his film Moonlight, his worldview is clear. His film doesn’t have any white characters thereby risking the complaint of a narrow worldview, but doesn’t fall short of being nuanced in any account. His characters are not stereotypes and yet the society is even more fragmented and distraught. His black man is not seen to be emancipated from slavery or isn’t just a thug who has lost his way of life. He presents a culture-specific story in which the struggle of the protagonist is a shared one: coming-of-age identity, masculinity, and sexuality.
Jenkins' film examines the life of a young Chiron who struggles to come to terms with his identity in terms of his sexuality and physical timidity in a harsh world that constantly dictates who he should be. Furthermore, his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is an addict, he is an easy target for bullies and has a hard time with no respite until he stumbles into Juan (Mahershala Ali). In a tripartite structure, we get to see his journey from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, as he navigates his problems and engages in his own process of making meaning.
To a young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), the world belongs to bullies and abusers. Everyone brands this taciturn boy “Little” and constantly shows him how to walk and talk, but Juan comes into his life as someone who is willing to listen. However, he isn’t the stereotypical guardian angel who will look after him and take away all of his pain. Instead, he becomes the model for the identity that Chiron seeks. One time, Chiron asks Juan the meaning of “Faggot,” and another time, Juan tells him to carve his own path.
When we see Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in adolescence, he has grown a voice. He isn’t as mum as Little, but Juan isn’t around anymore, and his struggle is even more prominent. He is in the same hell-loop, and his breaking point is when Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the only one who has ever touched him, hits him. His adulthood is the embodiment of someone who has given in to societal pressures; his nightmares persist and he keeps himself numb with ice-cold water. What takes the film to its heights is the way it ends. Confronting Kevin (André Holland), being in his arms and crying is the way Chiron chooses to express himself and that becomes his identity. He has always been the “soft,” “little” boy and that makes him who he is.
Popular culture, born as an answer to the elite ‘standard’ culture, sadly caters to an essentially white supremacist stance in its representation of the black man as hypersexual and violent. Chiron is Jenkins’ answer to those who look at black men through that distorted lens. When Juan tells Chiron the story of a lady calling him Blue, we become aware that he never takes up that name. He doesn’t subscribe to the identity accorded to him, nor does he try to make his own identity. Instead, he chooses to be the macho male that society requires him to be. The question of masculinity thus becomes intertwined with his crisis of identity.
When Principal Williams tells Chiron, “If you was a man, it’d be four other knuckleheads sittin' right there with you,” it reflects how society sees violence as a means of exerting dominance, and that dominance is everything. Kevin is at ease with such a way of the world but Chiron struggles. He could only cry and say, “You don’t even know.” However, Chiron internalizes the expectations, and as an adult driving the car, he is the exact copy of Juan. Imitation becomes his way of survival. But when Kevin calls him years later, an agitated Chiron travels miles to talk to him, to face him, to cry in his arms. In the last scene, as we fade to Little Chiron by the beach, his casual yet deep stare tells us that he might be “Little” to the world, but he is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) with Kevin by his side.
James Laxton has done a fabulous job as the cinematographer for the film. He plays with the ideas of cold and warmth, celebrating colours and visual imageries. The colour blue not only stands for Chiron’s relative softness but also the fluidity of his person just like the sea on the shore of which Chiron kisses Kevin, marking yet another point of transformation; consequently a change in their dynamic. When Juan tells the story of the lady, the colour blue becomes representative of the entire black community, and it is no less a representation of someone who is “soft” like Chiron. The colour blue celebrates Chiron’s impressionable being and is akin to the warmth he seeks in the hot bath he himself prepares. The use of soft lighting in shades of blue, white, and yellow runs parallel to the story of self-exploration. The room lit up in neon pink, in which Chiron’s mother disappears every time, stands in sharp contrast to Chiron’s struggles, as he is left alone to fight.
The sea speaks volumes in Jenkins’ film. Not only is it visually appealing with the moon shedding some silver from the top, but the sound of the waves, the breathing breeze speaks back at Chiron and at us. The open sea is an escape for Chiron who finds the world suffocating and filled with noise. The sea breeze has a calming effect on Kevin and Chiron as it allows them to feel their heartbeat. The breeze is also liberating. It makes Kevin want to cry while for Chiron it becomes a friend who knows his griefs. The sea also witnesses their love and desire as the two share a kiss. The sound of the waves calls to Chiron from time to time reminding him of its presence, be it in a dream or in reality.
As the sea calls, the camera leads. The movements of the camera make the story more personal for the audience. The intentionally shaky handheld camera movements honestly capture Chiron’s fear and isolation. Smooth transitions are introduced once Chiron becomes comfortable with Juan and Teresa (Janelle Monáe). As the camera moves in a circular motion, the faces in the close-up become the representatives of those who are already in the chokehold of the macho-man discourse. The camera even makes us follow Chiron from behind in his struggle and pain, and becomes an examination of Chiron's empowerment as he appears and looks at the camera right when the film ends. That look lets us know his claim in his own story.
Although the story centers on the character of Chiron, we cannot sideline the transformation that Kevin goes through. In a very limited screen time, his character arc certainly catches the audience’s attention. Kevin and Chiron together become a visual representation of the internal struggle of every man– while Kevin is the facade behind which we hide, Chiron is what we truly want to be. Kevin’s pain when he is being forced into beating up Chiron resonates with our daily conflicts and dilemmas. In Paula, we find linearity. Even though the three actors who plays different ages of Chiron performs brilliantly, it was Paula’s character that provides continuity to the three chapters. Glimpses into Paula's upheavals becomes necessary to add an extra dimension to Chiron's character arc.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue informs the film, is black and gay, and has spent a considerable time at the Liberty City neighborhood in Miami. The director Barry Jenkins, too, is black and has descended from Miami. It is no wonder the chemistry between the two, in turning a compelling tale into a powerful visual art, is so wonderful.
Jenkins’ visual art feels like poetry. It has its own rhythm that dances like waves. Chiron's silences accentuates possible meanings throughout and the disjointedness in the face-on camera and sound, as noticeable when Paula and Kevin speak, adds a fine note of abstraction. The subtle yet powerful symbolism in the three different names of the protagonist- Little, Chiron and Black completes the film as a true coming-of-age narrative.