Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a young, closeted, gay, black man growing up in the slums of Miami in the 80s and 90s. The story is told in three distinct acts, delineated by the name the film’s protagonist, Little/Chiron/Black, is called during each period of his life and by different actors, Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes, respectively, playing the central role in each segment of the film. In this structure and in its reliance on carefully staged, expertly acted dialogue scenes, Moonlight’s origin—as an unproduced play by Tarell McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue—becomes most apparent. Adapter/Director Barry Jenkins took “moonlight” for the title of his film. He could have easily taken any of the play’s title’s other nouns, verbs, or adjectives as well.
Let’s start with the verb, “look.” (And I’m going to refer to our protagonist by his non-nickname, Chiron, as well.) Chiron is a quiet, introverted young man who spends more time observing and considering the world than he does interacting with it. He’s trying to find his place, to figure out his essential identity. He is a small, wispy boy and not given to violence, and to be a man in his world is to be hyper-aggressive, so he has a difficult time fitting in. He has an abusive, drug-addicted mother and an absent father, so he is looking for love, and this is complicated by his emerging homosexuality in his younger years and his need to be “hard” to survive as a young adult.
Now let’s consider “black” and “boys.” Like Brokeback Mountain in this way only, Moonlight sets its gay character in a context not typically associated with gay narratives. In Brokeback Mountain, homosexuality is so foreign to its cowboys, they don’t even have the term “gay” to describe themselves. They are trying to navigate their feelings in a world that does not include resources for understanding them. Chiron’s world does have a word to name his sexual orientation, but it is not an acceptable word. The only term he is given to categorize himself is “f***t,” a derogatory, dehumanizing term.
As Ang Lee did in Brokeback Mountain, Barry Jenkins introduces a gay character into an aggressively masculine environment to highlight the destructive nature of hyper-masculinity and to lament the lack of a more gentle and loving form of masculinity in that culture. For any society to function properly, it must integrate its masculine and feminine aspects in healthy ways. Even Chiron swings to one extreme in the final third of this film, and the movie laments this. Moonlight’s use of music is one of its particularly cinematic aspects. Notice how Chiron’s life is scored when he’s being true to himself compared to how it is scored when he isn’t. Regardless of how self-assured he appears scene-to-scene, his true self is echoed in how the movie sounds.
Now “blue.” Moonlight is a steadfastly melancholy film. There is a persistent sadness to Chiron’s life, first because he is picked on by other boys and does not have a father to protect him; then because his mother descends deeper into her drug addiction, rendering him homeless, a circumstance that mirrors his inability to find a place where his burgeoning sexuality fits within his culture; and then finally because he has grown into a deeply repressed man, successful in appearance but failing miserably at being true to himself. Melancholy is “sweet sadness,” and Chiron’s sweet moments are blue as well, near the endless azure sea or awash in the breeze coming off of it where he is held lovingly by other men.
But Jenkins didn’t choose any of those words for his film’s title. He chose “moonlight,” and I think it’s because that word best captures the mood of the film – soft and dreamlike, a cool reprieve from the violent heat typical of stories set in similar places, throwing light in unexpected ways on familiar situations, inviting us to see these people and places differently. For a film concerned explicitly with a person’s sexual identity, there is very little explicit sexual content in Moonlight, and what is included is heterosexual in nature. It’s a gentle film. Whatever we believe about the rightness or wrongness of Chiron’s sexual orientation, I think we can agree with Moonlight that he deserves love as much as any of us do, and Moonlight’s serene light is perhaps a good opportunity to empathize with someone whom we might not encounter in our day-to-day lives.