If, like me, you are interested in film, then you have probably already seen Moonlight. If you haven’t, then I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about it in the near future – and not only during awards season, but in years to come.
Moonlight chronicles the life of a young boy named Chiron (nicknamed “Little” and “Black” at different points in his life) as he grows up in a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in Miami. In three chapters – from childhood, adolescence, and finally, adulthood – we see Chiron tread the murky waters of identity and isolation, navigating his differences as he tries to find his place in the world.
Some say it is a film of many ‘firsts‘: The first Black filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Barry Jenkins), the first Academy Award nomination of a Black woman for film editing (Joi McMillon), and some say, it could be the first ‘LGBTQ’ film to win Best Picture, not to mention a ‘Black LGBTQ’ film.
While these are all impressive achievements and certainly indicate a step in the right direction for (American) award ceremonies (re: the #OscarsSoWhite outrage just last year), I do not wish to dwell too much on these formal declarations of excellence, but rather on the cinematic artistry and social underpinnings that are really at the heart of Moonlight’s achievement.
Moonlight is more than a “queer love story” or a well-done “black movie,” as it has been labeled in headlines and award season chatter — though it is also very much a well-done black, queer love story …
“The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story” (McCraney quoted in Anderson, “L.A. Times”)
Moonlight was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
This title also works its way into the film’s dialogue, spoken by a drug dealer turned father figure to young Chiron, or “Little,” as he is called during this chapter of his life. It was a line that stuck with me long after I left the theatre.
In moonlight black boys look blue.
It’s probably under the moonlight that we see that black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate … It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.
Because we rarely see ourselves in those hues or under that gauze. We see ourselves in the harsh police light or the amber of street lights, but what is it when the reflection of the sun in the moon is sitting on these bodies. What beauty can we see? (McCraney in “L.A. Times”)
Bodies under light. Bodies under watchful eyes.
The body is the place of captivity (Brand 35).
In thinking of bodies, I think again to Dionne Brand, who says, “the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora” (37).
How then, does moonlight affect this bodily captivity? How does it reject regulation?
As McCraney argues, Black boys are used to seeing themselves under the flashing lights of cop cars, or under the urban artificiality of street lights. But what of the deep, natural, blue of moonlight? Can this help ‘denaturalize’ the overregulation of Black bodies?
Under moonlight, bodies change. Beings change.
In the film, some of Chiron’s most pivotal moments occur under moonlight. In a way, it is when Chiron is under that cloak of blue that he really starts to accept himself. He can begin to embrace his differences while defying other people’s definitions and expectations of who he should be.
Whether he is “Little,” “Black,” or “Chiron,” under the moonlight, he can just be.
This self which is unobservable is a mystery. It is imprisoned in the observed. It is constantly struggling to wrest itself from the warp of its public ownerships. Its own language is plain yet secret. Rather, obscured (Brand 51).
What I also noticed, however, was that where there was moonlight, there was often water. The beach, for one, becomes a particularly significant setting for Chiron’s personal growth.
The beach: where water meets land, and where man is caught somewhere in between. Between the rolling waves and the sinking sand, it is a transformative space – between beginnings and endings, there are becomings.
In a way, moonlight reflects most strongly alongside bodies of water. Blues become bluest between sky and water, away from the neon lights of urban life.
And blue, too, are bodies by water.
I’m thinking of one particular shot where we see “Little” standing alone, shirtless, staring out into the water. The blue of the moon reaches from the sky, tinting the waves as they roll forwards and backwards, and finally casting its cerulean colour across Chiron’s bare shoulders.
The sea would forever be larger than me. My eyes hit only its waist. I saw a wave’s belly looking backwards. I saw froth rolling toward my feet as the sea moved into my spot on the beach. It always came in a jagged circle, frothing and steaming. It reduced all life to unimportant random meaning. Only we were changing and struggling, living as if everything was urgent, feeling – the ocean was bigger than feeling (Brand 11-12).
Against the sea, one life might seem small, perhaps powerless, in comparison. But when you see “Little” standing along the shore, he is not diminished.
Although the sea is at once threatening, it is also transformative. It holds potential – both positive and negative. Caught between the sand and the waves, Chiron acknowledges the formidable nature of the sea.
Formidable, but not insurmountable.
Chiron’s place in the world might not be clear – caught between acceptance and isolation, between protection and persecution, between conformity and conflict. But one’s life is never truly little, even against a seemingly endless saltwater horizion. What is one’s life, if not for one’s becomings? There is no destination without a journey. And in Moonlight, the journey becomes the destination (Brand 203).
Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water (Brand 6).
Under the deep blue of moonlight, we see bodies differently.
We see beauty.
Or more importantly, under moonlight, we get the chance to.
Anderson, Tre’vell. “Before the buzz began on ‘Moonlight,’ the coming-of-age story started with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-moonlight-playwright-tarell-mccraney-20161017-snap-story.html.
Berman, Eliza. “Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First.” Time, http://time.com/4656493/moonlight-barry-jenkins-interview/.
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.
Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017