At the end of the small beautiful film Moonlight (2016), a young black boy stands at the edge of the shoreline. His body is so black it glows blue under the moon. The boy turns to look straight at us, and his look into our eyes is the last image we see. It is an image that shows this boy in a world of isolation and beauty, and an image that connects this young boy to so many people, regardless of color, sexual orientation, or class. He is a small human standing at the shore of his life, alone, lost and yearning. This is a familiar place for many, and that is why Moonlight is both a movie about race, economics and sexuality, and why it also transcends those categories and becomes a story about human isolation and the threads of hope amongst the ruins.
By the time we reach this image, it is a return to a boy who we have watched grow into a man. We have experienced three incarnations of him played by three different actors: Little (Alex Hibbert) – a young boy fighting for survival amongst bullies, poverty and drugs; Chiron (Ashton Sanders) – a teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, alienation and economic reality; and finally Black (Trevante Rhodes) – the grown man and ex-con turned drug dealer who still is achingly the little boy lost we see at the end of the film.
“Who is you?” This is a question that people ask Chiron over and over. His mother (Naomie Harris), a nurse turned crack addict asks it. His childhood crush Kevin (André Holland) asks it when they reunite as adults. And his surrogate family Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe) ask it. Mostly, Chiron asks this of himself as he goes through various incarnations and wades through life seemingly drowning in his own isolation yet anchoring himself in moments of hope and connection. Who is he? It is a question everyone reading this most assuredly asked of themselves at one time or another in life.
That the movie splits Chiron into three identities that all connect to one – Little, Chiron, and Black – shows the split that everyone experiences when trying to grapple with identity in a social hierarchy that bullies the outsider. We don’t know who Chiron is, nor do we know his name until about 20 minutes into the film. We first meet Chiron when he is a blur of a boy being chased by a group of his schoolmates who want to beat him up for being “different.” We don’t know that yet. All we see is chaos.
The film is set in the 1980s and opens on a Miami corner in a neighborhood full of housing projects and crack addicts. The movie throws the audience immediately into a state of disorientation. We approach the film looking through the windshield of drug dealer Juan’s Impala, the hood of the car looms onto the screen like an animal with its little crown on the dash letting us know that this car holds court on the corner it approaches. The camera follows Juan as he negotiates with one of his workers. The camera roams and sweeps in circles around the characters, preventing us from getting grounding, as if we are swirling in an undertow. The filmmaking makes us dizzy and unsure of our ground. This disorientation sets the stage for the little boy (who we’ll later learn is Chiron) who tears across the screen and through the street with the gang of bullies following him.
The camera switches gears and tracks Chiron in a frenzy as he bangs on doors of “crack holes” until he finds an empty one. He locks himself inside the abandoned apartment, and the sound and camerawork turn the screen to utter chaos. Kids pound doors and windows with angry thuds of fists and sticks. The violent sounds pierce Chiron’s body as he covers his ears with his hands. He swirls in the darkness of his isolation and the poverty of this gutted crack hole. When the camera settles, Chiron leans down, picks up a glass tube, and lifts a crack pipe to a single stream of light that momentarily catches sun and looks almost beautiful. This is the magic of the film, that Chiron can be so desperately alone, living in such violent circumstances in ugly economics but can still find a sliver of magic in what otherwise would be a deadly and ugly truth – a crack pipe and all it represents to his community and his life.
This opening sequence situates the film in a specific place time and ethnography, but it also pulls the rug of orientation out from under us by turning stability on its head. This instability allows the film to breathe, to be more than just another movie about a poor black kid being dealt blows and ending up in prison, more than a coming out movie about a homosexual boy battling the confusion of his sexuality. It is the moments of tender introspection, of Chiron’s deep interiority that allow the audience a way in. We occupy Chiron throughout the film because his quiet introspection and retreat implore us to go inside with him. He acknowledges our presence when he looks at us at the end of the film. The vision that we see through him is one that is both anchored to the realism portrayed in the film but also expands to become a powerfully tender universal portrayal of survival, perseverance, heart, and community even when the odds are stacked against us.
The screenplay was written by director Barry Jenkins based on a story Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film in many ways is a mash-up autobiographical piece based on the shared experiences of director and writer, both of whom are gay black men who grew up fatherless in tough times during the heyday of 80s crack cocaine. The film is set in the 80s, and it could be billed as a “coming out” or a “coming of age” story, but it is neither. Though it is the story of a gay black boy directed by a black director and featuring an entirely black cast, the film manages to be both about a specific time, place, race, economics, and identity and to move past that and touch universal human struggles. This is an act of brilliant filmmaking.
Shot for a little over $1.5 million, the small budget somehow allows the film to shine with reality. Though the film contains what could be stereotypical characters: the crack addict mother, the muscle bound and muscle car driving drug dealer, and the bullied gay boy, none of these characters fall into stereotype traps. Above all else, everyone in this movie is human. They have flaws and love; hope and betrayal. They are good and bad. They are real. The characters are not cast in the self-righteous identity branded films stamped with the Oprah label, nor are they cast in the angry outcry of movies like Boyz N the Hood (1991). The film uses natural elements – light, scenic realism, sound, and outstanding acting – to create a naturalist view of a topic that is as taboo as taboo gets.
There is nothing that makes the average white heterosexual male more uncomfortable than black male on black male love. In American ethnography, the black man has historically been the symbol of emasculation, the castrated male, and therefore is threatening to masculinity itself. Producing a movie that shows two black men in love with each other and who are struggling with issues of masculinity and identity is a brave step to take. To make that film more than the sum of its parts and allow it to transcend the socially taboo categories of these men and allow them to be universal people is a revolutionary cinematic move. Showing the impossibly difficult obstacles these men, and particularly Chiron, face while also transcending their struggles to address a universal struggle of alienation is an act of mastery.
One of the reasons that the film is so effective is because it is so quiet. Except for when he’s being bullied by neighborhood kids, nurtured by his alternative family, or quietly enduring his mother’s outcries, Chiron is largely seen in isolation – looking out of a chain link fence onto the school yard, sitting in a bathtub alone in the center of the frame with a single bar of soap, dunking his face in a sink full of ice cubes, lying on his back alone in his bed. In one critical scene when his mother unleashes a torrent of rage on Chiron, we don’t even hear her words. We just see her mouth and feel her anger in silence.
This scene cuts directly to a scene with young Chiron sitting at the table with Juan and Teresa, his surrogate family. Teresa asks how Chiron’s doing, and Chiron responds with one word: good. She replies with the simple truth: “I’ve seen good, and you ain’t it.” From that moment, so many complexities unfold about what is good and what is bad, and that there are no easy answers or easy categories. Chiron asks Juan and Teresa what a “faggot” is. The tolerance, compassion, and tenderness that follows is not what we would expect from most mainstream black culture which tends to be perceived or portrayed as homophobic. Juan says it’s a word that’s used to hurt gay people. When Chiron asks if he himself is gay, Juan and Teresa say he doesn’t have to think about that now. It is a moment of tolerance and compassion that is completely unexpected yet delivered with quiet reality that shows there is another way. At this point, Juan states the words that lie at the core of the film and in the hearts of all who watch it: “At some point in your life you’re going to have to decide who you’s going to be. Ain’t nobody else going to do that for you.”
What these words give Chiron and give us is agency, the idea that we have the ability to define ourselves. But those words of hope do not come without a flip side. We can only define ourselves to a large degree given the cards that have been dealt us. So Juan, while being an exceptionally caring and sensitive man who has taken young Chiron under his wing, is also the very man who sells Chiron’s mother crack. Chiron asks him about this point blank, and when Juan says yes, Chiron leaves the house as tears rolls down Juan’s cheeks. Reality hurts. Sure, we can define who we are, but we also have to face economic reality. No one gets off clean. When Teresa tells Chrion that she’s seen good and he ain’t it, we can say that about anyone in the film and anyone in the audience. Humankind is a mixed bag of good intentions gone wrong, identities mutated by survival, pain and love. We hurt and are hurt.
The complex relationships between what is good and bad and between hurt, love and necessity are woven throughout the film, but most powerfully in Chiron’s bond with Juan and with Kevin. Kevin is the neighborhood kid who nicknames Chiron Black, the kid who Chiron feels connected to in a way he doesn’t fully understand. Kevin meets Chiron on the beach where they have a quiet, understated sexual encounter. The following day, Kevin pummels Chiron while being egged on by a sadistic bully. The boy who shows Chiron tenderness one night, beats the living shit out of him the next day, not because he wants to but because he feels he has to in order to survive in the world he occupies. There are no easy answers.
This betrayal triggers such rage in Chiron, a lifetime of contained isolation and alienation, that he beats the sadistic bully to a bloody pulp with a chair and lands himself in jail. When we next meet Chiron, he is the man driving the car with the crown, dealing the drugs and wearing the fronts (gold caps on his teeth). Muscle bound and prison wise, he physically looks like the king, but the astounding acting of Trevante Rhodes shows us the tender soul of young Chiron looking out of the eyes the grown man.
In the third segment of the film, Black (Chiron) and Kevin are united in a series of scenes filled with awkward silences, stumbling words, and gaps where things that need to be said are left unsaid. There is a need for penance, a need for love, a need for amends, and a need to connect in a place where both men have drifted apart spending time in prison, and where the last time Chiron saw Kevin, the boy was punching Chiron’s face into a bloody mash and begging him to stay down so he wouldn’t have to punch him more. How does one live with the conflicting emotions of betrayal and love, and how they are entwined with survival? There are no right or wrong answers. There is only what is. And that’s how this movie works. It’s realism, not melodrama, and reality is messy.
Interestingly, though focused on brutal times and emotional and social isolation, the film also contains a strong sense of community, hope and connection, and what holds the hope in this film together is a quite simple reality: food. Juan first connects with Chiron by taking him out to eat where Chiron gobbles up the food on his plate just as voraciously as he gobbles up the care he is receiving from Juan. When Juan brings him home to Teresa, she places a giant plate of fried chicken and all the trimmings in front of Chiron. He eats and eats and eats, a boy starving for connection, but he has yet to speak a word. Teresa laughs and says he may not talk, but he sure in the hell can eat. On that note, Chiron utters his first words in the film: “My name is Chiron, but people call me Little.” At that point, Teresa says “Well I’m going to call you by your name Chiron.” So here at this table with fried chicken on the plate, Chiron receives his first validation as a human, his name delivered with a home cooked chicken wing.
In the final scene with Kevin, the awkwardness between them is broken by food. Yes, the betrayal that Kevin committed shows in his eyes and his very body language (thanks to the terrific acting of André Holland), but the healing and uniting moment comes when Kevin cooks Chiron the Chef’s Special, preparing the food with tender care and delivering the plate to his childhood friend and, ultimately, love. Chiron gobbles down the food, eating every crumb of the love he has craved for a lifetime. They are healed and rejoined by food. Like so many other characters in the film, Andre Holland’s grown Kevin mirrors the complexity of life, the tensions between good and bad, love and hurt, and the reality of life. In Kevin we see the often unfair discrepancy between what you want to do and what you desire and the reality of circumstances that lead you to do what you think you need to do to survive and how those actions hurt others. The movie ends with an understated vision of two men accepting life, with its pain, isolation and desperate need for connection, on its own terms. Kevin acknowledges that he hurt Chiron and literally opens his arms and his heart in a gesture not of gratuitous sex but of love and acceptance and connection.
Then we cut back to that boy on the beach. The boy blue in the moonlight. The boy looking at us, and us looking into him. I felt that young boy so powerfully, that I had to return to the theater to move through his life with him again. I am a white woman, but I am no stranger to Chiron’s world or struggles. The magic of this film is that the struggles are specific yet universal. It uses a low budget, a viscerally real screenplay, tremendous acting and beautiful direction and cinematography to give us a movie that is lean, direct, beautiful and so real. Moonlight takes a taboo subject and turns it into universal truth that will touch anyone who has experienced trauma and felt isolated, alienated, disconnected, and brutalized (physically, economically, and/or socially), and that’s just about everyone I know right now, so thank you Barry Jenkins and the tremendous writing, acting and direction in this beautiful film.