An elegant, heartbreakingly intimate character study and love story with an unlikely protagonist at its center, Moonlight makes a powerful case for the importance of emotional vulnerability and of confronting the ghosts of the past.
Moonlight unspools over three chapters, ‘Little,’ ‘Chiron,’ and ‘Black,’ which correspond with the different identities the film’s protagonist, Chiron, picks up over his life. Living in Miami’s Liberty City projects, Chiron has to overcome struggles with his drug-addicted mother, bullying, homophobia, and toxic masculinity. Director Barry Jenkins brings these complex issues together through the canvas of one young man and his interactions with an unjust world.
Chiron begins as ‘Little,’ a nickname given to him by neighborhood bullies. As a scrawny, reserved, effeminate boy with few friends, Chiron cannot push back against them and the toxic masculinity that they represent. He spends the rest of his life grappling with this warped masculinity, seemingly the only way for boys like Chiron to survive in the projects. His absent, drug addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) offers little guidance. Thankfully, he finds some hope along the way. In Kevin, he finds a friend and budding romantic interest with whom he can talk openly about his feelings. In Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae), he finds two benevolent caretakers who welcome Chiron into their home throughout his childhood. None of these people are perfect; Kevin easily succumbs to peer pressure, and Juan deals drugs to Chiron’s mother. Still, these relationships offer him support and an alternative to his bullies’ masculine ideals in his formative years.
But over the next two chapters, Jenkins masterfully examines how the world hardens Chiron and boys like him. Juan and Teresa accept Chiron for his gay identity as he deals with homophobic bullies and romantic feelings towards Kevin, but Moonlight makes it clear that the rest of Chiron’s world isn’t so tolerant. ‘Chiron’ ends with a heartbreaking betrayal, and the film’s final act, ‘Black,’ deals with just how difficult it is for Chiron to rebuild from this trauma. But no matter how much he may change in appearance or in age, Chiron remains at his core the same quiet boy from the projects.
Chiron’s passive nature makes him an unusual protagonist, particularly for a film of this scale and ambition. He does not stand up to the bullies who traumatize him with homophobic taunts that permanently affect his perceptions of masculinity and sexuality. Only kind strangers like Juan and Teresa help him overcome his dysfunctional life in the projects with his drug-addicted mother. Even with Kevin, the most genuine emotional connection in his life, he never quite expresses his true feelings. Chiron never performs a grand romantic gesture, and never has a big climactic moment when he finally manages to pull himself out of the projects.
However, as will inevitably be the focus of much coverage surrounding the film, what makes Chiron an especially unlikely protagonist for the current social and political climate are his marginalized identities—as poor, black, and gay. Moonlight arrives as a serious awards contender in the wake of this year’s #OscarsSoWhite movement, and similar activism about representations of minority voices in the film industry. And more urgently, Moonlight arrives in a time when much of the media coverage around black men and women like Chiron centers on their violent encounters with the police. For viewers close to such issues, there’s a lot riding on Chiron and Moonlight to help compensate for a history of marginalization and misrepresentation.
It is comforting, then, that Chiron proves to be a deeply compelling protagonist because of the very things that make him so vulnerable. Jenkins uses Chiron’s passivity and barely-submerged sensitivity to great effect, especially as he works to examine and subvert preexisting models of black masculinity and sexuality. The film’s final thirty minutes accomplish more than any film in recent memory in presenting vulnerability—namely, male vulnerability—as something beautiful and worth protecting. Moonlight’s closing frame alone will be enough to make even the most jaded audiences swoon.
“You ain’t gotta have a heart as black as mine,” Chiron’s recovering mother tells her son near the end of Moonlight. It’s a devastating line in a standout performance by Naomie Harris, and it’s clear Jenkins hopes to leave audiences with this line, long past any memory of Moonlight’s many haunting impressions.
In that moment, though, her line is not enough to heal the wounds of the past. There is too much pain, too much regret, too much left unsaid for that to work. How could one conversation ever fill the void left by an absent parent, or by a heartless lover? How could one film, however acclaimed or brilliant, ever make up for the troubled history of black, queer representation in film? The world keeps turning, and there’s nothing we can do to change the past. But by making its case so powerfully, Moonlight makes it easy to get swept up in the possibility of change for even the most damaged people. If nothing else, it might help to see that you are not alone.