Directed by Barry Jenkins
Moonlight opens with a long take, the camera swirling around Juan (Mahershala Ali) as he meets with someone working for his drug operation in the streets of a lesser seen part of Miami. Without cutting, the film stitches time together in a way that suggests a degree of continuity within a movie that will take place over two decades.
The ‘long take’ has become quite popular in modern movies, most prominently in films shot by the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity, Birdman). In a long take, you are choosing to stretch out time to reflect real life rather than movie time, which is much faster since you can cut around inessential or boring moments and get to the point. No filmmaker wants to waste time unless that is the point. So what’s the point here? Moonlight is a film that stitches together three short films about Chiron in three important times of his life that help shape his identity. I think that this first shot is there to tell you that everything is important in the scene and in this story. Chiron is a quiet character who communicates more in silence and expression than through words. Every moment, every look, every breath and beat of silence tells you something. The opening image of Moonlight lets you know not to ignore the time in between because those moments tell you the most. In that way it’s very much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).
Each of the three segments of the film focus on an important relationship with Chiron’s life, with the final third paying off the relationships introduced in the first two parts of the film. Juan is important for this reason. He meets Chiron not long after we do. Chiron runs for his life from two other boys, ducking through a hole in a chain link fence and hiding behind a locked door in a run down apartment complex. He’s a scared kid trying to survive. Juan then shows up, gets the kid a meal, lets him remain silent and brings him home for the night, at least until the kid (at the time called Little) tells him where he lives.
We like Juan simply because he’s kind, despite understanding that he sells drugs in some fashion. When he takes Chiron home, the boy’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is guarded and holds her son back from the stranger who brought him there. It’s not until later that we see that Chiron’s mother, at first an attractive young women in nurse’s scrubs, is really a drug addict and only loves her son just enough so he’s not taken away for his own good. She screams at him, leaves him on his own and prioritizes hook ups and needles ahead of him. This all makes Juan that much more of a stabilizing force in young Chiron’s life.
Juan has a nice home with a nice wife, Teresa (Janelle Monae), and they both listen to him when he dares to speak. In between his sparse and carefully chosen words, they remain silent with him as if in solidarity.
One night Juan recognizes Paula, getting high on his street while he works. He pulls her out of the car and tries to talk some sense into her, but she correctly points out that he’s the one selling to her. Later, in an excruciating scene, Chiron confronts Juan about his line of work, realizing that he sells drugs and is partially to blame for his mother’s addiction. Chiron gets up from the table and storms away, leaving Juan alone, silent and haunted, despite his wife’s attempts to comfort him.
Next we are re-introduced to Chiron, now a slender teenager. He’s still a silent kid, but when he speaks, his deep voice feels powerful, like momentum is building up within him and he could explode at any moment. His quiet nature begins to feel more assertive, like the world has expected him to start talking yet he refuses. As a kid, his quietness felt like fear to speak, and now it feels like a refusal to speak.
Chiron, hinted to be gay in the first section of the film, experiences a sexual awakening with his friend Kevin on the beach at night. It’s the one good thing to happen to him, placed between a violent confrontation with his mother who hounds him for money Teresa has given to him. Chiron still goes to her house when his mother kicks him out of her own, even though we learn that Juan has since died, an unsurprising revelation considering his line of work (as well as a suggestion of where Chiron might end up given his similar occupation in the third segment of the film).
Teresa is kind to him, treating him like a son, and Chiron vocalizes his appreciation. Later at school, a bully pressures Kevin into beating up Chiron, and he does. Chiron’s face is swollen like a boxer after a few rounds, and he cries in the counselor’s office. He’s tortured, and we understand why. Chiron is essentially homeless even though he always has somewhere to sleep. The father-figure in his life has died, his mother hardly knows him, and the only kid we’ve seen befriend him has beaten him up.
Chiron does finally explode one day as he strides boldly through the school and into a classroom where he grabs a chair and smashes it over the bully’s back. Chiron is arrested, and then we move into the third and final part of the film.
As an adult, Chiron looks just like Juan, the man he turned away from because of what he represented. Chiron drives a similar car, wears an identical do-rag and also sells drugs in a role eerily similar to Juan. Again, knowing that Juan died young sets this up to potentially end poorly for Chiron.
He’s muscle-bound and quiet but assertive and intimidating. It’s not until Chiron gets a call one night from Kevin that we recognize the boy from the first hour of the film. Chiron drives from Atlanta, where he now resides, to Miami to see his old friend. Over the course of the night, the two rekindle their relationship tentatively and tenderly. Chiron continues to hide behind his silence, choosing to turn up the radio when Kevin probes him with a particular question.
Chiron doesn’t have to say much for Kevin to understand, but he says enough to keep the conversation going. Kevin is alarmed when Chiron tells him that he sells drugs, and Kevin figures out there’s something going on when Chiron has no other reason to drive all this way. There is purpose behind this seemingly casual encounter.
In a quiet, intense conversation, Chiron admits that he’s never been touched by another man since Kevin, around ten years earlier. The film ends with them embracing each other before we see a final shot of young Chiron, Little, facing the moonlit ocean and turning around to look at the camera.
There are several motifs in this film, and they are all featured in the film’s final shot: water, silence, facing away from the camera and looking directly into the camera.
As a boy, Juan effectively baptizes Little when he teaches him how to swim in the ocean, and he appears to awaken something within the silent, sullen boy after this interaction. As a teenager, Chiron and Kevin melt together in front of the ocean waves, their backs to the camera, and Chiron bathes his beaten face in the ice water in his sink. This same shot is used in the final portion of the film as Chiron again bathes his face, rising up from the water like he has cleansed himself.
We meet Little when he runs from the camera. We see Chiron march towards his juvenile incarceration, away from the camera, and we ultimately watch adult Chiron stride toward the unassuming diner where he finds Kevin, walking away from the camera. The look back at the camera at the very end of the film is a clear change, suggesting that Chiron is no longer afraid of what has been following him this entire time. He finally has a sense of identity, one that was stunted for so long while he concerned himself with nothing more than survival.
For most of this story, Chiron is trying to escape. If he goes anywhere it’s only because he’s escaping something else. As a young boy, his chirpy friend wrestles with him, hoping it will make Chiron realize that he’s “not soft.” This comes after a group of kids play a game once called ‘Smear the Queer,” especially relevant given Chiron’s own sexuality and the constant antagonism he faces.
So the film establishes pretty quickly the separation between ‘hard’ and ‘soft.’ Juan is hard, I suppose, because he’s confident and has some amount of power. Despite this he is kind underneath and maybe that makes some consider him soft. The last time we see Juan, he’s crying. As a teenager, Chiron admits to crying a lot. He’s soft, by other people’s standards, but he’s also somewhat in touch with himself in a way others probably aren’t at that age. His encounter with Kevin is tender and a little shocking. It took courage by both of them, but of course from my perspective I wasn’t aware that they were both gay and don’t know if they were aware themselves.
That night on the beach is like a rebirth, but the brutal beating afterwards rudely ends this enlightenment. It’s easy to see that, had that beaten not occurred, Chiron would have been a very different person.
As an adult, Chiron explicitly refers to becoming “hard.” He had been kicked around enough to know that he could only defend himself by being strong and keeping his guard up. In doing so, however, he seems more like an empty vessel on the inside, at least until he meets Kevin and that same guard drifts away, allowing the real Chiron to show up.
Throughout this film, Chiron never has much of a home, reflecting his internal struggle with his identity. As a kid he runs away from home, but he ultimately turns away from his new home when he realizes it has more in common with the home he has constantly tried to escape from. As a teenager his home life is even worse, and he finds solace in Teresa’s guest room, though it’s clear he treats it more like a motel than a second home. He has no place to rest and unwind, and he has no place to be himself.
As an adult he has a home, but the only time we see it is at night when he sleeps alone without a blanket. It’s a sterile, motionless home with no warmth. When he accompanies Kevin home, we see a house adorned with the drawings of Kevin’s daughter and colorful walls.
The film ends with Chiron discovering part of him that he has probably denied since he first discovered it. He embraces the only man who has ever embraced him back, and he accepts himself. He has always had to react to other people, whether through fighting, running, playing or looking. If he didn’t have someone to fight, someone to run from or someone to look at, then he didn’t know what to do because he didn’t know who he was.
There’s a concept of the ‘death of ego,’ in which you lose all sense of yourself and are able to see the world through a lens untainted by your own subjectivity. As far as I know, it’s presented as something to strive for, but it also feels like a description of Chiron throughout this film. He’s searching for himself while a lot of people are trying to get away from themselves. It’s as if he began to develop late in life, when other kids already had a sense of who they liked, what they liked and who they were. Their confidence trampled his own, and he was left behind, unable to grow because of constant opposition and unable to grow without any opposition. He was, in a sense, running in place. But as an adult we see people who have already reached the end so to speak. Their life journey played out to a point at which you finally have the freedom to decide what you want to do or you’re already committed and restrained by the things you’ve previously been pushed to do.
Chiron’s mother is in rehab (she calls it home), reacting against her own past decisions, and Kevin is a cook, paying the bills and child support because that’s what he needs to do. They are both reacting against their past selves, but Chiron has no past self to react against. That’s why he’s able and willing to drive to Miami late at night. Though he is an adult, he’s still gathering information about himself and the world around him.
Demonstrating an ability to forgive, Chiron reunites with his mother and with Kevin, possibly his only friend in the world, and in doing so he meets himself.