Taking a name, accepting one or just learning to wear one takes on particular significance in Moonlight. It is tied tightly to the story of a young African American boy in Miami becoming a man. Not a problematic path for most. If you talk, act, fight the way you are supposed to, it’s a simple unquestioned progression through the accepted rites of passage. Dare to stray from that path, though, and you are at risk of drowning. Dare to challenge the way people see you. What they call you. And you can risk your life.
This is just one of the ways in which writer/director Barry Jenkins very purposefully problematises the coming of age of his protagonist, who for the interest of this discussion we will refer to not by the name others give him, or even the name he comes to accept himself, but by the name he was given at birth, Chiron.
In many ways Chiron’s life hurdles (if we are to minimise them) fit the standard mould of African American cinema, most notably in the harassment of his crack-addicted mother (with addled ferociousness by Naomie Harris); in others, namely his nascent attraction to men, they break the mould entirely. And in stepping outside the accepted experience, Jenkins provides a harrowing dissection of the forces that hammer young African American men into shape, with or without their compliance.
Even though it exists in a world of violence, Moonlight is a film marked by its restraint. Eschewing the big-ticket choreography of the likes of Girlhood, a film that covers very similar territory, Jenkins’ cinematic styling skews towards realism with mere flashes of translucent beauty. Colour, music and soundscapes (particularly the ocean motif that buoys Chiron’s existence) cut through film’s hand to mouth setting, allowing Jenkins to push to the edge of harsh realism. To peer beyond it. To feel its wind on one’s face.
Similarly, Jenkin’s direction is understated, working off the many faces the men are asked to wear. Much of Moonlight’s runtime is given over to the hyper-masculine bravado of the streets, be it expressed nurturingly by Chiron’s drug dealer mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali) or more menacingly by the kids who chase him down in the streets. Only Chiron stands apart in this, at least for two slices of the film’s tryptic structure. He is a questioning calm in the middle of a testosterone storm.
It is through Chiron that Jenkins unwraps the damage of this experience. For the most part, the unwrapping is precise but there are moments of searing honesty that tear through the accepted experience and Jenkins’ exceptionally well-calibrated screenplay swells to them like an unstoppable tide. Each is delivered by Chiron at a different age (an initial questioning by Alex Hibbert as Little, a life-altering liaison by Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and a devastating admission by Trevante Rhodes as the hardened Black presence). Each cuts directly to the heart. Each redefines Chiron’s relationship to those around him and to the audience.
Connection becomes the currency of Chiron’s life, mainly in its absence. Those he loves invariably get torn away, often elided without a chance for goodbye. Those from whom he should be inseparable push apart, and those who should pay him no mind, provide him with emotional sustenance. In this, Jenkins forms a film about masculinity and sexuality that cares little for sex, which in many ways becomes a step too far, sublimated to a moment of barely physical kindness.
The capacity of Chiron to overcome violence and to ultimately structure his life around a moment of friendship instead of an incarceration-inducing betrayal speaks to the depths of Jenkins’ belief in the immensity of the queer spirit. It may be battered into a monstrous beauty by the men around it but it yearns for its own kind. And that yearning can define. It can take its own name.
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