Out of many, one
By Zeke Trautenberg
“Who is you Chiron?”. That is the question Chiron’s friend—and by extension viewers—ask at the end of Moonlight. Despite the camera’s tight focus on Chiron, he remains inscrutable. The protagonist of Barry Jenkin’s film is, like the Christian God, both one and three. Viewers see three Chirons: the small, defiant young boy (Alex Hibbert); a wiry, shy teenager (Ashton Sanders); and a man (Trevante Rhodes) who masks his inner scars with an outer shell of hardened masculinity. This chameleonic character, who shares a name with a centaur of Greek mythology, is the film’s central mystery.
Jenkins’ film is an adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who shares a screenplay credit with Jenkins. Like Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater’s coming of age story of a white boy in Texas, Moonlight depicts its protagonist’s development over a period of years. Set largely in Miami, film features the traditional three act structure of the theater and the modern coming-of-age story: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In the first act, we see the young boy grow attached to Juan (Mashershala Ali), a local drug dealer, who offers the boy shelter and companionship, but who also supplies his mother with crack. This moral morass, like the humidity that envelops the film’s Florida setting, is a recurring leitmotiv. In the second act, Chiron faces alienation in high school, experiences his first sexual encounter, and, after an act of violence, is inducted into the criminal justice system. In the third act, a muscular Chiron, virtually unrecognizable from his teenage self, spends his days “trapping” near Atlanta, Georgia. After receiving a call from his childhood friend Kevin (André Holland), Chiron drives back to Miami to visit him and by extension his past.
The common thread of these portraits of boyhood, adolescence, and manhood is Chiron’s reticence to talk about himself. As his friend Kevin observes, Chiron rarely says more than three words at time. Chiron’s silence, however, is not a sign of inner tranquility or indifference. Rather, the taciturn character at the core of Moonlight is a churning tide of insecurity and alienation. He alternatively runs from and seeks solace in his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), struggles with his own sexuality, refashions himself in the image of his surrogate father, and seeks human connection while resisting emotional attachment.
Jenkins’ inspired and assured direction, the dexterity of James Laxton the Director of Photography, and the subtle editing work of Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders are vital to the telling of Chiron’s story. Two of the key formal choices Jenkin’s makes are eschewing voice-in-off narration and to embracing an elliptical narrative structure. Deprived of access to Chiron’s internal thoughts, viewers must engage the film actively and unearth the protagonist’s many layers. In a similar vein, the film’s elliptical narrative structure reflects Chiron’s reactions to his circumstances, as he variously flees from and run towards the people who inconstantly populate his life. A close, but imperfect parallel is Michelangelo Antonioni’s representation of Monica Vitti’s characters in his films from the early 1960s.
The film’s camera work and editing are evident from the opening scene of the film. In this initial scene, a sustained tracking shot, the camera twirls around Juan, a figure who serves as Chiron’s surrogate father, and who later becomes an iconthe adult Chiron aims to emulate and embody. Another memorable sequence, which appears twice in the film, is a shot of Chiron’s mother, backlit in pink neon lights, screaming at her son and calling him a faggot. The first time we see this pivotal scene, his mother’s screams are muted, reflecting the young Chiron’s incomprehension of his mother’s hurtful words. The second time we see the scene it is in the adult Chiron’s dream, yet in this oneiric version his mother’s visceral hatred and outrage rings out in full force.
Black filmmakers have engaged with black masculinity in a variety of ways since the Civil Rights Movement. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) explores the masculinity of a working class African American man in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as he struggles to make ends meet at his brutal job at the slaughterhouse, while he simultaneously strives to provide for his family. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) depicts the evolution of the charismatic leader, whose masculinity, like Chiron’s, malleable. Ava DuVernay’s more recent Selma (2015), portrays the figure of Martin Luther King through an elegiac and humanist lens. He is both a hero and a man with failings like any other human being. Jenkins’ gut-wrenching film about an enigmatic, poor, southern, and gay black man is a significant contribution to this filmic legacy of black masculinity on screen and is sure to be a cornerstone of America’s cinematic cannon.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running Time: 110 minutes
Photos: A24/Plan B Entertainment