How do we figure out who we are? And how do we find a space where we can truly be ourselves? It’s a learning process that goes on our whole lives. Moonlight explores these questions, through a window into three short periods of the life of a young African American man named Chiron.
Each period is titled with a name that encapsulates Chiron’s identity. The first third, titled “Little,” is what everyone calls nine-year-old Chiron. It is apparent from the beginning that Little is different although it’s not immediately apparent why. When we first meet him he is being chased by a gang of boys and seeks refuge in a derelict apartment, managing to avoid them by using the only thing that still functions in the apartment, the lock on the front door. After the boys leave, Little is discovered by Juan, a mid-level drug dealer who literally breaks into Little’s isolation by pulling a board off a window and taking him under his wing. For Little, Juan becomes a place where he can be safe. Safe from a mother who doesn’t know how to deal with him or herself and safe from the other children who torment him.
This safe space represents itself most fully in the moonlit swimming lesson that Juan gives Little. In this encounter, Little learns that he can trust and that he is the master of his own identity. It is on this beach – with the sound of the gently lapping waves in his ears and the moonlight on his skin – that he is welcomed and that he is safe.
Unfortunately, things don’t stay this way. The middle third, which takes Chiron’s given name for a title, covers an eventful week of his life in high school. It shows us his mother in the grips of her drug addiction, and that Chiron is still tormented by his peers. Only Kevin, a friend he made as Little, treats him with any sort of kindness. It is with Kevin that Chiron has his first and only romantic encounter. It is on the beach, where once again Chiron finds safety in the moonlight and the sound of the waves.
Again, this doesn’t last. The final third of the film jumps forward in time by a decade. Its opening mirrors the opening of first third of the film where we are introduced to Juan, and it is clear that Chiron has taken to modelling Juan as his template for black masculinity. He has also transformed himself from a gangly, awkward youth into a muscular young man. This final third is titled “Black” and it is evident (at least from his choice of licence plate) that Chiron as an adult has chosen to go by the nickname Kevin gave him 10 years previous. The reunion with Kevin is central to this final third. Spurred by a phone call from Kevin, Chiron returns to Miami where Kevin makes him dinner in the restaurant where he works. Haltingly they talk over dinner and then return to Kevin’s apartment which is a stone’s throw from the beach where they had their first encounter. Only here can Chiron safely admit to Kevin, “You’re the only one who ever touched me.”
Much of what is communicated in this film is done so without words. This is especially true for the character of Chiron, who is rarely in a situation where he can feel safe expressing how he feels. This too is a symptom of his difference. Those who are different in a way that brings out violence and confusion in others are rarely safe in expressing their feelings. Glances must suffice and we along with Chiron are left to determine if we can trust characters based on their actions and body language.
Moonlight is an intense and lonely film that encourages us to empathize with a character that breaks stereotypes of race and sexuality. Chiron gets his name from the first centaur in Greek mythology; he’s a unique creature trapped between two worlds. Most people in Chiron’s world, including his mother, don’t know what to do with him and he’s left to bear the brunt of their confusion. Only the characters of Kevin, Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa, offer Chiron any place of safety.
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