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“Moonlight” (2016) is a poetic and universal tale. It is a coming-of-age story for everyone who has every questioned “Who am I?” The central character in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story is a Black American young man in Miami, yet he is also all of us, in all locations of this world growing up and coming to terms with our unique identities and surroundings.
Barry Jenkins, the screenwriter and director, takes McCraney’s story of one person’s lifetime and makes it into a filmic triptych that relates to three seminal stages of that life: preteen, teenager, and young adult.
Jenkins uses separate actors to portray the same character at three distinct iterations of personal growth: the first section of the film shows Little (Alex Hibbert), age 11; then Chiron (Ashton Sanders), age 17; and finally Black (Trevante Rhodes), age 25.
Little inhabits a world of silence, fear, and anxiety; he is selectively mute because of the sadness of his home environment—where he lives with his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris)—and the isolation he experiences when he cannot vocalise his feelings. Like many young people on the cusp of a shifting physical and emotional landscape, Little is quiet and brooding; he spends the majority of his time watching his peers and the adults around him.
Little uses his physicality more than words, with the majority of his communication being shown through the longing silently etched in his eyes. However, the film is not silent; the score by Nicholas Britell, the musical interludes, and the background sounds of the Miami ocean create a moving emotional landscape from the opening scene to the final frame.
McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami and worked together to produce a film about identity and early life in a location that was simultaneously beautiful and a nightmare. Jenkins ensures that the audience sees that people can live a life of poverty, hardship, and emotional turmoil in the middle of picturesque surroundings.
McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami and worked together to produce a film about identity and early life in a location that was simultaneously beautiful and a nightmare. Jenkins ensures that the audience sees that people can live a life of poverty, hardship, and emotional turmoil in the middle of picturesque surroundings. He uses the images, sounds, and feelings in the film to show a juxtaposition of intense emotions, alienation, and loneliness amid a stunning physical landscape. Jenkins directs the film to portray the main character as physically adrift, alienated from his community, and travelling within himself yet surrounded by space at all times.
The introduction of Little on-screen occurs in the first few minutes of the opening credits as he is running and being chased by his childhood bullies. This theme of escape continues throughout the majority of the film. Little is rescued from the junkie den he hides in by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local drug dealer. Juan’s character is a magnanimous father figure toward the vulnerable Little whom he nurtures rather than exploits. “C’mon now, can’t be no worse out here,” he says as he entreats the scared child to go with him for a meal. Those few words cement a lifetime relationship of trust between Little, Juan, and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) that is based on a mainly one-way verbal communication method. Juan and Teresa become surrogate parents, the anchors in Little’s life. They save him from drowning in the questions of his own identity.
Little, Chiron, and Black expertly portray the internal silence and loneliness of a coming-of-age experience. The main character is like the water that is the soundtrack to his life: fluid and constantly changing.
Little, Chiron, and Black expertly portray the internal silence and loneliness of a coming-of-age experience. The main character is like the water that is the soundtrack to his life: fluid and constantly changing. Little has a baptismal-like experience when Juan teaches him to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, as in that moment he symbolically and literally learns life lessons on how to stay afloat and trust other people.
Juan cradles Little in his arms in the expanse of the ocean with the reassuring words, “Relax. I got you.” When Little is ready, Juan releases him, saying, “You in the middle of the world… There you go, I think you ready.” Little finds safety and constancy with Juan and Teresa.
Little/Chiron/Black experiences a harsh reality of toxic masculinity and homophobic hatred from his school friends, yet Juan is a constant and caring male figure who gently teaches the young boy identity politics when he tells him that “there are people who look like you everywhere,” and “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Little’s mother Paula is inconsistent and angry and frequently forces Little to look inward or to Juan and Teresa’s for clarity, especially about his own sexuality and the local trap (drug scene). At Juan’s home he learns about complex adult relationships and behaviour, including the fact that Juan sells drugs to Paula. Silence and secrets are a constant thread in this film. Before he betrays Chiron, Kevin, a childhood friend, shares a story of his own sexual experiences but insists that the tale “must stay between us,” adding enigmatically, “… I know you can keep a secret.”
Teenage angst is pivotal in deciding the direction of Chiron’s life. Kevin succumbs to masculine peer pressure when he chooses to fight Chiron in the schoolyard, which leads to Chiron transforming into Black after subsequent events lead to a prison sentence. When Kevin and Black meet in the third part of the film, Kevin notes that Black is “still fronting.” However, both men eventually discard their facades and recreate a tender moment from the beginning of the second part of the film when they were intimate with each other.
“Moonlight” is a worldwide story about being able to love yourself before you can love others.
“Moonlight” is a worldwide story about being able to love yourself before you can love others. It is a journey of silence, recognition, and acceptance of self and also connections with others. It is a tale about situations that may appear calm on the surface but underneath the physical armour is a state of chaos.
At the end of the film, we understand that every life is a palimpsest of earlier identities—where one finds a way to handle the crises of young sadness, numb oneself to anger and confusion, and eventually navigate a pathway to personal happiness.