Moonlight (2016): A Love Letter To The Black Body Beautiful

On February 27th 2018, at the Academy Awards Ceremony in Hollywood, broadcast to millions around the world, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announce Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” as the recipient for best picture. Over two minutes later, chaos arises onstage as a man grabs the microphone during the acceptance speech and declares that it was a mistake. 

The world held their breath in awe and confusion, it was the turn of events really none of us expected. We were all thinking the same thing: surely the groundbreaking jazz-pop musical drama is the perfect and obvious winner of the biggest film award of the year? But it turns out Beatty really did have the wrong envelope, and the prize was actually supposed to be presented to quite the contrasting film. The real winner was “Moonlight”, Barry Jenkins’ three part coming-of-age fairytale, set in the rough black neighbourhoods of inner city Miami. It follows a young black boy as he navigates his way from childhood to adulthood, searching for his identity, a parental role-model and self-acceptance of his sexuality. Director Jenkins took some time onstage to process this sudden twist of events, and in his acceptance speech he said,

“There was a time where I thought this movie was impossible because I couldn’t bring it to fruition, because I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story”.

This rings true, especially to the marginalised communities of the world, people of colour who come from dead-end backgrounds, who are brought up feeling unable to contribute to a world that has so overtly pushed them to one side. If you take a film like La La Land, an anthem for naïve dreamers, luxuriant promises of Hollywood and the enterprises of corporate white industry – the staggering statement of it being defeated in such a humiliating circumstance by a film that almost ironically depicts how the other half lives behind the glittering curtain of white privilege, is very empowering. You may hear me talk about La La Land in a spiteful way a lot on this blog, and hopefully I’ll post a review of its own at some point, I actually don’t think its a bad film at all, I genuinely do like it quite a lot and it resonates with me personally in some ways. However in many other ways it is a perfect example of how Hollywood likes to present itself and sugarcoat the film industry (I elaborate more on this in my Mulholland Drive post), taking our focus away from challenging films, unconventional films, indie films, films about being black, films about being gay, films about real life that push the industry into being accessible to all. The victory of Moonlight at the Academy Awards, despite the initial push for La La Land (a whole conspiracy theory that it was all staged exists and perhaps does make some sense), is very telling, and a very needed statement in the world we live in now. It establishes the idea that the Hollywood industry isn’t as impenetrable as we may think.

The film Moonlight is based on the unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the title of which is very similar to a line in the film, the sort of unexpected yet beautiful imagery that lays as the backdrop for the movie. Set in Liberty City, Miami, during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s, the first of three parts is entitled “Little”, aligning us with our main character Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a very young boy, running from bullies who from the very beginning of the film are out to “get his gay ass”. Hiding in an abandoned crackhouse he encounters drug lord Juan (Mahershala Ali), and at odds with all stereotypes, his tenderness and empathy for “Little” leads him to take him under his wing. The sweeping impressionistic handheld camera that follows Little as he dodges the bullies and finds refuge in the darkness connects us closely to him and suggests that Jenkins wants to pull us into Little’s tactile, enigmatic world. Before Juan’s entrance we see Little holding a crackpipe up to the light flooding into the former drug den, the cinematography creating a disconcerting yet somehow beautiful shot. From this we get the impression that stylistically Jenkins likes to bring influences of Arthouse cinema to the hood, a reflection the significant theme of contrast. Moonlight as a film is both hard and soft, light and dark, bitter and sweet, tender and rough. 

Another interesting contrast here is the environment of inside and outside, as Juan says “C’mon, can’t be no worse out here,” hoping to persuade Little to come out of the refuge of the crackhouse and join him in the big world. Here, Jenkins encapsulates the nature of Little and Juan’s relationship before we even learn anything about them, yet as a spectator we haven’t seen Little with a parent so far, creating the impression of his vulnerability and need for guidance – Juan seems to offer this right from the start. The idiom “coming out” – which could mean Little coming out to join Juan outside, coming out with a new identity, or coming out with his sexuality – stays present throughout the rest of the film, almost as if constantly repeating this particular interaction between Juan and Little but in different scenarios, we get to see him in different lights, and to whom he is prepared to show it to.

Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) makes Little feel a part of their small family with her home cooking, like a perfect family portrait. But neither Juan nor Teresa are Little’s real parents, as when Juan brings Little home we meet Paula, his abrasive yet seemingly caring mother, played by Naomi Harris who gives a phenomenally intense performance. Behind the face value however, Paula seems no better than Juan: she is a serious crack addict which affects her fragile relationship with her son. We see Little depend on Juan more and more, and the most stunning scene of the film, maybe one of my all time favourites, is where we see Juan teaching Little to swim in the ocean, cradling him in the water as it ripples around them, the camera emerging and submerging smoothly with the soft waves, creating a beautifully serene image of true paternity. The delicate tenderness of the visual spectacle gliding atop a graceful piano score returns to the idea of “masculinity”; whether it pertains to its superficial definition or it allows moments like these – of softness, vulnerability, beauty. Juan’s character seems to be composed of this balance, from the outside he’s just another hard drug dealer from the inner city because that’s how he’s learned to survive, but on the inside he is still “Blue”, the nickname he was given as a child, like the rippling water, tender and sensitive, fully qualified to be the father Little needs. However the themes of identity and Little’s relationships with potential role models in his life deepen when Paula says to Juan in a street confrontation: ”Don’t give me this ‘you gotta be gettin’ it from somewhere’ shit … I’m getting it from you.” By saying this, she introduces the idea that we’re all personally responsible for each other; in being the one supplying crack to Paula, Juan could be responsible for hurting Little despite acting as his main paternal figure, suggesting a moral ambiguity that surrounds all the characters in the film.

Also in Part One, we meet Kevin, Little’s childhood friend (Jaden Piner) who sees him excluded from the boys at school and tells Little he needs to show the other boys he’s not “soft”, thus challenges him to a one-on-one play-fight. The camera turns this little scramble almost into a dance, focusing in on details and motions, perhaps communicating that Little and Kevin’s relationship is a moment of grace, though they are pressured to be “hard”, they find tenderness within themselves and their relationship. We later see Little enter a gymnasium where Kevin and some other boys are comparing penis size, again highlighting the theme of the vulnerable body, and how truly ambiguous the concept of masculinity is.

Now we enter Part Two, titled “Chiron”, Little’s real name and identity as an adolescent (Ashton Sanders), perhaps signalling a switch from childhood fantasies to the real world (or the transition to puberty). In his childhood Chiron could easily sit at the sidelines away from the other boys his age – in high school, he’s forced to integrate, which means a direct challenge to his natural softness and ‘effeminate’ nature. He’s viciously bullied about his sexuality which is slowly becoming apparent to the other boys – he’s picked out for the tightness of his jeans and his mannerisms, they call him “Little”, suggesting he’s represented by his childhood identity, still closeted, small and helpless. He also has nightmares of Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), still his best friend, having sex with women in his back garden, showing that he’s haunted by his childhood trauma relating to his own sexuality. We also learn that Juan has died, we aren’t told how but it is likely a consequence of his involvement in the crack business, perhaps indirectly harming Chiron in that he became a father figure to him yet still pursued a way of income that would likely get him killed, thus leaving Chiron without that paternal influence. Meanwhile, Chiron lingers between the two maternal figures he has, Teresa and his real mother Paula, who’s crack problem seems to have escalated to the point where she is stealing money given to Chiron by Teresa in order to fund her addiction. Her haunting line “You’re my child. You tell that bitch, you better not forget it”, epitomises her anger and bitterness for not being the mother Chiron needs but also the trauma that Chiron is having to deal with.

Chiron has his first sexual experience on a beach, somewhat parallel to the scenery where he spent time with Juan, surrounded by the blue moonlight and the blue ocean. He has this experience with Kevin, whom he seems to have built a kind of romantic energy with even since they were children. This is an affirming moment for Chiron, an event that will shape the rest of his life and seemingly a victory. Things start to drop however when Kevin drops Little off home later, they act as casually as possible and end the encounter in a handshake; cheating their sexual chemistry. 

The next day at school, Kevin performs the ultimate betrayal towards Chiron, as the main high school bully orders him to beat up Chiron in order to prove his strength to them. The parallel here lies with the scene in Part One where Kevin encourages Little to be more tough and stand up to the bullies; yet here Kevin is demonstrating his toughness to the bullies by becoming one of them, a hypocrisy we’re faced with when growing up whilst under the pressure of our peers. Chiron rises to his feet after each punch and takes it relentlessly, as if relishing the pain for foolishly believing he had won something in his life, an assurance of his feeling – yet it was little more than a knife in the back. The following day Chiron marches into the school and assaults Terrel, the main bully, (Patrick Decile) which results in is arrest, and a deadly standoff of eye contact with Kevin. Part Two ends in a tone of darkness, anger, and perhaps a new wake up call for Chiron, a call that would shape his new identity.

Part Three is “Black” a nickname for Chiron given to him by Kevin in Part Two. It symbolises the grown Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), tougher, harder, a ‘real’ man. Its startling to see his physical change, he’s muscular,  tough looking with gold fronts on his teeth. The coalescence of the cinematography and editing is sleek and smooth, almost like a commercial, which compared to the shaky subjective perspective of Part 1 suggests a more refined and established existence, though perhaps one that has been perfected to hide its inner workings. In some ways I feel it reflects the life of an “established” person in modern day, especially with social media, we define our new “grown up” identity by how we choose to show it, not with frankness and vulnerability as we do as children; Black here chooses to show us his facades first, then take us behind the scenes later.

Black is now an established drug lord in Atlanta and an evident replica of Juan, yet when he receives an unexpected call from Kevin (André Holland)

after a decade long silence, his toughness seems to fade a bit. The colour blue seems to spill its way back into the frames and Black can’t hold back his tears, he seems more uncertain, emotional and sensitive, just as he used to be (or perhaps always has been). The phone call is followed by an unusual sequence showing Kevin smoking alone outside the diner, of which he is now the head chef. He exhales the smoke and looks directly at us, the spectator, a strange enigma thrown out by Jenkins here that could suggest a number of meanings. Personally, I interpreted it as a challenge, as it was Kevin who first challenged Little Chiron to be tough, and yet he was himself challenged to assault Chiron in Part 2. I feel that now its Kevin’s turn to challenge us, to forgive him and to believe that Black’s tough front is still extremely transparent; in other words he’s warning us not to fall for the illusion of the smooth new lifestyle, as he is about to go in and bring out the old Chiron, that never left.

But first, Black visits his mother Paula in a drug rehabilitation facility where she now holds residence. In many ways, Black and Paula’s roles have reversed as Paula is clean whereas Black is a drug dealer, but also the roles of parent and child as we now see Black tending to Paula with care and guidance, especially when he lights her cigarette when her hands shake too much and holds her chin tenderly. We begin to see elements of forgiveness between them, Paula admits that she had been a bad mother and begs him for his heart not to be “black” like hers. Could this be hope that it is actually possible for Black to open his heart up to someone? Could he truly love someone?

We hold our breath for Black as he drives all the way to Miami, to Kevin’s diner. He sits at the bar whilst waiting for the chef to approach him – he doesn’t recognise him at first, but once he is face to face with Black they share an intense moment of eye contact followed by speechless greeting from Black, a trademark characteristic that Kevin seems to enjoy and remember fondly. Black orders the “Chef’s Special”, a Cuban dish we see Kevin cook with care and passion, blue lights filling the kitchen. Kevin sits with Black and shares with him what has happened in the last decade, Black’s eyes visibly seem to fall when he shows him a picture of the child he had with his high school girlfriend, but apparently they are no longer together. Black admits that he is a drug dealer, and Kevin, shocked, says “That ain’t you.” Black replies that he doesn’t know him, to which Kevin responds defiantly, “I don’t know you? In a moment of reflection, and perhaps the first use of expressionistic film making in this particular scene, Black hears the sound of the pounding waves on the beach, reminding him his tryst with Kevin back in his youth, giving the slightly awkward and testy atmosphere between them at this point a sensual element, the tentative romantic chemistry holding them together throughout their entire friendship. Black asks Kevin why he called; he goes to the jukebox and plays the song “Hello, Stranger,” by Barbara Lewis, a 50s love song, saying a man came in and played it and it instantly reminded him of Black. The lyrics are, “It seems so good to see you back again,” saying the words that neither man could bring themselves to say, instead the song communicates their mutual feeling.

This time, the roles are reversed and Black drives Kevin home, which happens to be sat next to a beach, a motif that repeats itself throughout the film. At the apartment, Kevin asks Black “Who is you?” again poking holes in his gangster front. Of all the characters, Kevin seems to be the one who truly pins Black down, rather than just defining him by the identity he presents, he acknowledges his nature of swimming between identities, both Little and Juan Jr. Black is overwhelmed emotionally by this discussion, and reveals that Kevin is the only man he has ever had a sexual encounter with. After taking this in, Kevin simply smiles while Black lifts his chin up in an attempt to stifle his emerging vulnerability. They hold each other, and we cut to the final shot of Little standing in the moonlight, looking out to something we are not shown. The relationship between shots here is important, as the parallel between Black and Little reminds us of the fluidity of time in the film, no matter where he ends up he is still the little boy searching for himself. And even at the film’s conclusion, we never seem to find it, we don’t know whether Black will ever find the love that he craves either, yet it doesn’t seem necessary at this point because we know that Black will never lose Little, and he is incapable of being pinned down by any label. 

One thing that really stood out to me in Moonlight, aside from its complex themes and messages, is how the director composes each shot extremely thoughtfully, as well as being a very moving film it is also technologically stellar. I personally find it easy to fall in love with how lighting is used in film, the blending of bold colours especially in films like “Far From Heaven” and “Blue Velvet”, to create an elevated sensory experience and invite the spectator to feel the emotions of the scene, which is why I admire Jenkins’ use of lighting to symbolise different characters and their desires. Chiron is occasionally shifted into a blue light, reminiscent of defining moments in his life like learning to swim with Juan and the sexual encounter on the beach with Kevin, ultimately signifying a fluctuation in his emotions. At the beginning of Part Three, Black exchanges drug money with an employee in a dimly lit room, then moves to a kitchen area separated by walls with a letterbox window making him visible from the room, the kitchen flooded with blue and thus creating a jarring contrast that symbolises a separation between his gangster personality and his emotional side. The cinematography frames the kitchen like a little box within the living room, perhaps suggesting the image of Black pushing Little into a box in his mind so no one would suspect that side of him, the side Kevin, who changes into a blue shirt at the end of the film, finds a way into and provokes until Black becomes tearful. Paula is often surrounded by intense pink and red lighting, specifically in a highly expressionistic dream sequence that repeatedly haunts Chiron throughout his life. In the sequence, she emerges from a hot pink room to turn to Chiron and aggressive shout at him, the colours here symbolising her conflicted anger and intense love for Chiron, a combination that ultimately forms her abusive treatment of him, thus the traumatic image stays with him as he grows older.

Over all, Part One is the most expressionistic section of the film, especially with the powerful mood lighting, sweeping, surreal visuals and the dreamlike elapsed timeline of events. This makes sense as it is all from the perspective of a child, at an age where he has the freedom to imagine and dream whilst trying to figure the world out. Part Three, on the other hand, is presented through the sleek editing and shot relationships as mentioned previously, as well as a more straightforward real-time chronology, contrasting Chiron’s childhood and adulthood identities. Yet we see occasions in each one where they slip into one another, such as the boxed off lighting in Part 3 that tries to hide itself within the diegesis but still presents a heavily expressionistic cinematic choice, leaving us the audience still asking “Who is you Chiron?” The truth is that we never find out, but Jenkins deliberately allows us to finish experiencing the film with a new concept of identity, one that doesn’t rely on people being defined by a certain persona. As a matter of fact, Chiron is neither Little, nor Black, nor Blue, nor Juan Jr, we learn ultimately that within Chiron’s adult figure there are multiple complex layers all receding down to his childhood self, all of which solidly define him.

Moonlight is a celebration of individuality, of black bodies, of male vulnerability, of strong women, of sexual pride and ultimately a signal of appreciation for those living incarcerated within minority status who strive for themselves. Compared to the movies churned out routinely by Hollywood and the money and the fame and the formulaic nature of the film industry, it stands out as a beautiful reminder of who we all are at heart, without any cover-ups or artificiality. Every person will go through a period of searching for an identity, but Moonlight suggests that you shouldn’t be defined by one thing, theres already a host of past identities within you to get you through today, and into tomorrow.

Score: 9/10

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