Overview: A young black man comes to terms with his sexuality over three defining chapters of his life. A24; 2016; Rated R; 110 minutes.
Three Colors Blue: A deep, poetic melancholy fills the spaces of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. When we consider poetry, we naturally consider language, how words ebb, flow, and crash into each other to form elastic meaning that we interpret. What we don’t consider, or at least not enough, are the spaces in between these words, the breaking of lines and gaps in time that are used to create rhythm. Moonlight, through its deliberate use of silence, has rhythm. When we first meet our protagonist, Chiron “Little” (Alex Hibbert), his defining characteristic is silence. This silence, created by an absent father, a crack-addicted mother, and constant bullying is partly broken when Chiron meets the charismatic drug-dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Through Juan, Chiron begins his first steps of self-discovery, uncovering the complexities of masculinity, and the “front” through which masculinity is projected in order to hide one’s true nature. “In moonlight, black boys look blue,” Juan tells Chiron as they sit on the beach, watching the push and pull of the ocean against the shore. What’s ambiguous is whether or not this blueness is the front of masculinity, the sadness inherent in their race’s troubled history with homosexuality, or the beauty of identity that can only be fully revealed in the night. The film tackles all three possibilities, and while there is an authenticity of language surrounding these explorations, it’s in the authenticity of silence that answers are found.
Silent Soul: When Chiron’s mother calls him a faggot near the end of the first act, we don’t hear her words. We watch her mouth move, we see the expression on Chiron’s face, and we know what was said. Later, these words are confirmed when Chiron asks Juan what a faggot is. Juan responds that it’s “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” But for all the power of words, that word in particular, Jenkins isn’t interested in defining Chiron through them. Even though Chiron asks, “Am I gay?” the question seems obligational, because there is no act from which Chiron or anyone can draw a conclusion from. Thus, Jenkins depicts homosexuality as a journey, one drawn from a lifetime’s worth of experiences, and not defined by the existence of labels or conclusive through the display of fronts.
The Chiron we meet in the second act, an incredible performance by Ashton Sanders, is still mostly silent but also hunched and shrunken from a fear to act, a fear to finally answer the question “Am I gay?” When he does finally act, under the cover of moonlight, Jenkins depicts it not as some grand moment of awakening, but as a hesitant and sweet relief that answers are beginning to emerge but are not yet enough to form a definitive sexual identity. Again, Jenkins isn’t interested in providing an easy way for us to place a label on Chiron, but to take Chiron to a place where his actions provide him with the comfort to define himself. There’s an important distinction be made here that Chiron’s journey isn’t for the emotional benefit of the audience, but for the emotional benefit of the character, and whatever we take from the film is a result of that, not of framing and positioning this story as a romance for our pleasure.
Hello Stranger: Chiron’s first homosexual experience with his childhood friend, Kevin, takes place on the beach, directly tying it to the earlier, daylight-set scene of Chiron and Juan. The ocean becomes a metaphor for both Chiron’s sexuality and masculinity, in that it is a contained vastness that changes in movement but not in makeup. Jenkins casting choices embrace this idea, and while the three actors who play Chiron and his friend Kevin, at three different stages of their lives never met each other during filming, there is such a commonality of body language and line delivery through the performances that these characters can’t help but feel grand in their realness.
The reality of these characters and their situation roll into shore during the third act where we once again find a Chiron who has seemingly embraced the front of masculinity as a hardened drug dealer. Chiron “Black” has attempted to redefine himself through actions that would deny him the opportunity to ever have to answer that initial first act question “Am I gay?’ Trevante Rhodes’ Chiron may be physically transformed, but in the quiet moments we still see echoes of the bullied and hunched boy and teenager from the previous acts. When he meets Kevin (André Holland) again, Jenkins doesn’t rush to a conclusive statement and instead seeks to examine how every moment of Chiron’s life has led him to this point. When Chiron sheds the identity of “Black” for blue we’re left with a silence so fitting and so earned that it’s impossible not to mistake for an answer.
Overall: Moonlight is a three-act poetic movement that stands as a necessary bridge between two disenfranchised communities, and a deep dive into the beautiful complexities of human sexuality and identity.
Featured Image: A24