• Teresa Xie


I actually watched Moonlight in a theatre with Sam and his family when it first came out in 2016. I think this is the way that Moonlight is supposed to be watched, in a theatre with surround sound that completely engulfs you in the haunting story. To this day, listening to Nicholas Britell’s “Little’s Theme” gives me immense chills, despite the track’s short run time of 59 seconds.

Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is incredulous in that it achieves an elevated artistic and cinematic quality, while still being able to reach a broad audience. Often films that integrate slower, more abstract narratives are admirable, but not easily understandable, especially for those who aren’t intently watching the movie or can’t identify with the marginalized identities in the film. However, to be touched by Moonlight is to be human. There is no other requisite.

Moonlight takes place in 1980s Miami and is split into three parts: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” as it follows Chiron, an African American man, through different stages of his life. As it alludes, “Little” shows Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) as a child, who gets his nickname “Little” from the bullies that never cease to torment him with jeers of the word “faggot.” His only solace is a local drug dealer named Juan, (Mahershala Ali) who takes Chiron (Ashton Sanders) in with his partner, Tessa (Janelle Monáe), as Chiron’s mom (Naomie Harris) is often too high on the drugs that (ironically) Juan deals her to properly take care of her son. Then, the film moves into “Chiron,” and we watch his transition from a scrawny boy to a lonely and sexually confused teenager. In his adolescence, Chiron turns his self-loathing into violence, unsure of where to turn. Finally, we conclude with “Black,” and see Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as a fully fledged adult. “Conclude” is definitely a word with too much finality, as “Black” is more akin to just another chapter of Chiron’s life, built upon the groundwork laid by his childhood traumas and self-awakenings.

The only person Chiron’s age who treats him as a non-disposable human being is his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It is Kevin who gives Chiron the nickname"Black,"which highlights the contrast between Kevin’s internalized view of his identity and Chiron’s alienated view of himself. Kevin’s forwardness builds into a pivotal moment to Chiron’s development of his identity, as he allows himself to be vulnerable with Kevin for the first time. The two share an intimate moment, one that is not defined by a series of sexual shots, but rather the in-betweens -- the hesitations, the initial embarrassment, and the overpowering inability to resist. The non-linear portrayal of this moment tells all: stop go, stop go, stop go.

Our attachment to Chiron’s character is built through his intimate moments with others, whether it's with Kevin on the beach, or learning how to float with Juan. It often feels as if we are being let into a secret we’re not supposed to know, where the silence speaks more than the harrowing noise. Through it all, Jenkins never expect us to expect anything from Chiron. We just want him to grow and to exist for himself. When Chiron appears as an adult, we see him physically embody a journey of pain and forbidden fruit in his tight, muscular build, acting as a shell of sorts, one that fails to let him forget where he came from. We are reminded of the physical distortions of Chiron's body, from the violent bullying to the submersion of his bloody face into ice after a breaking point in his relationship with his mother.

As I’ve stated before, my favorite type of films dissect the narrative of one person, as I often feel that it is when filmmaking reveals its purest form. As the film progressed, I felt like my head was always somewhere else, in the same way that I do when a song (ex. Frank Ocean’s “Ivy”) from my teenage years plays abruptly at a party, and suddenly, I am catapulted back to my adolescence. Jenkins’ crafting of Chiron’s growth in Moonlight ensures that you never forget Chiron’s roots; even when he achieves some form of peace in more forward chapters, a highlight reel of Chiron asking Juan and Tessa what “faggot” means plays in the back of your head. That silent, sinking feeling reappears, not only for us, the observers, but most imminently for Chiron.

Moonlight tells a haunting story of loathing, self-discovery, and love in a way that is accessible to audiences, who undoubtedly grasp and identify with the film on different levels. Jenkins never fails to break our hearts over and over again, as we watch a boy on screen become a man, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

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