I thought I didn’t relate to Moonlight. Man, I was fucking wrong. It is the magic of Barry Jenkins that he can make a story that is so specific (about a black gay man growing up in working class Miami) and make it relatable to the audience. That is one of the strengths of this near-perfect movie. The problem is – don’t get me wrong but this issue is important indeed – many people see this movie merely as a political statement and a vehicle for representation. There are a handful of films that serves this purpose as well and did it really well, like Hidden Figures. I understand that this film is important and timely and it is great for marginalized communities to be represented in big awards shows like the Oscars, but aside from it sparking discourse among people on issues of race and LGBTQ+ representation, it is important to see this film as a film and how it conveys its ideas to its audience. Because, god damn, this film is a really great film by itself. Hidden Figures is an important film since its narrative is approachable by the mainstream audience and poses as a mean to educate audiences on how black women help bring men to the moon, but Moonlight operates on a different plane. We see the world through the eyes of the film’s black gay protagonist as we experience life itself. Referring to this Letterboxd list, Moonlight isn’t just a film – it is an experience.
(This post is basically me saying don’t just join the discourse – SEE THE MOVIE! Excuse me while I sound like Dodie Clark talking about La La Land because I was completely blown away by this movie. Like, man, it’s been almost 12 hours since I saw it for the second time and I am still emo about Moonlight!)
Oh…. just a heads up, this post will contain spoilers for the film Moonlight. Spoilers will start after this picture of André Holland and Trevante Rhodes.
Still here? Let’s go!
Critics of this film would say that Moonlight has no clear plot. Actually, I think that this is the charm of the movie. I’ve been really tired of films conforming to three-act structures or Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey plotline because it makes a film seem unreal. Moonlight seems real because this film portrays real life, as raw as possible. And, life itself has no three-act structure. It’s just events unfolding before our very eyes. This film also teaches us to see every subtle detail in life, that even though life is pretty mundane in our eyes, we have to realize that the world has so much beauty.
I promised myself not to bring up La La Land in this post, but I’ve got to since I want to compare the universes of both films. In the world of La La Land, everyone is a dreamer. They move to Los Angeles to get what they want. Both Mia and Sebastian have big dreams; Mia dreams of becoming an actress and Sebastian dreams of owning a jazz club. They work hard to reach their dreams, pushing themselves past their limits to get what they want. Meanwhile, in Moonlight, our characters don’t dream – they’re already having a hard time staying alive. Chiron has to deal with social pressure and bullying in his school, his crack addict mom, and his sexuality in the same time. He struggles to breathe for air. In the end, both Kevin and Chiron do not get what they want – even Kevin says this explicitly in his residence to Chiron. “Yeah, but it’s a life, you know? I never had that before. Like… I’m tired as hell right now and I ain’t makin’ more than shoe money, but… I got no worries, man. Not them kind what I had before,” he remarked, when asked about his life. Kevin stated that at least, he’s alive. Moonlight shows that we don’t need characters with big dreams to make a poignant film; highlighting the struggles of people who are just staying alive is equally important and interesting (if executed clearly, it might be much more interesting than the former).
In Chiron’s struggle to stay alive, we see his labor to fit the societal roles of masculinity in black men. As a little kid, Kevin teaches Chiron on how to stand up for himself, since he is constantly bullied for being “soft”. Chiron asks Juan what the f-slur means, and if he is one. In a really heartbreaking scene, a school counselor lectures him on what it means to be a man and not a boy in really masculine standards. He even only tells Kevin, the person he trusts the most, that he cries a lot. In this day and age, there are still lots of films that uses stock non-white characters based on their stereotypes – angry black women, over-achieving Asians, drug dealing Latinos, you name it. Moonlight didn’t just deconstruct a stereotype; it tears it apart with bare hands. This film got me excited about filmmakers to come who would make films that tear stereotypes apart. A film tackling down black masculinity is a step closer to films about struggles of other minorities fighting against the stereotypes imposed on them. After being through bullying in his school, Chiron takes a final stab in trying to conform to black masculinity – a blow on the head of the boy who bullied him with his chair. It is weird that these people have been doing cruel things to Chiron for a long time and not get convicted of it (meanwhile, the school counselor has Chiron to blame for “not being a man”) while all the anger Chiron has gained, which goes out during his outburst, got him a ride on the police car. And it’s all because Chiron wants to change his image.
Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) succumbs to his peers into betraying his best friend, Chiron (Ashton Sanders).
This brings me to another topic I didn’t realize in my first viewing.
Who is you, Chiron?
The words from Kevin resonated near the end of the movie. I realized that this movie plays a lot on the theme of personal identity (in this case, how we perceive ourselves in the eyes of other people). Chiron is really weary about this, and this issue affects his livelihood as well – he is perceived to be a “soft” person and because of that, he is prone to bullying. The bullying against him doesn’t stop and in a final act of desperation, Chiron “proves” his masculinity to one of the kids who bullied him. Fast forward to a decade later, and Chiron is fitting to the stereotype of being a black, masculine man. Kevin and Chiron are reunited, and Kevin is perplexed on how Chiron turns to something he is not. Kevin has known Chiron almost his whole life, and he is appalled to find Chiron conforming to black masculinity. This, indeed, is how Chiron wants to be seen through other people’s eyes. Kevin doesn’t remember him to be that way, and he wonders where Chiron is. This is maybe because of his own experience of conforming to this type of masculinity and peer pressure – where he has to beat his best friend up for the sake of his social reputation in school. And he learns that he doesn’t want to be on top of the food chain because he doesn’t feel comfortable being there. Chiron builds himself from the ground up in Atlanta, and he feels comfortable conforming to societal standards. Or… is he? His meeting with Kevin lets him open himself up since he feels like Kevin is the closest he’s ever got to someone.
This reminds me of a quote from Trevante Rhodes in an interview from ScreenCrush:
I think about love on a scale from 1 to 10. Most of us find a 6 or 7, and that’s why we have divorce. It’s the truth. We settle for that 6 or 7. But I like to think Kevin is Chiron’s 10. He’s found that and he realizes that there’s no reason to settle for a 6 or a 7 because, “I know this person is my 10. Whether or not this person believes I’m his 10, I’m going to devote my life to this person entirely.” That’s why the line where he says, “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me,” for me, was the most amazing, most beautiful thing I’ve seen in cinema, period. Because that’s what we strive for as people, to find that one person because they’re there. If Kevin doesn’t feel that they should be together, Chiron is just going to die a miserable person because that’s his person and he won’t settle for anything else. But I like to think they’re together, walking in Central Park hand-in-hand when they’re 90 years old.
And, god damn, I realized how relatable this film can get.
During the first chapter of the movie, Juan acts as Chiron’s mentor. He teaches him how to swim and help him answer questions about life. As the film progresses and as Juan fades away from Chiron’s life, Kevin takes Juan’s role. This is evident even in the first chapter; Kevin teaches Chiron how to stand up for himself. Kevin also helps him face his bullies, find who he really is, and most importantly, discover his sexuality. This is not only evident in its narrative, but is also evident in its cinematography; in the first chapter, we see Chiron eating as Juan watches over him, and in the last chapter, we see Chiron eating as Kevin watches over him. Chiron looks up to Juan, while he respects Kevin as a friend and as a lover; he looks to Kevin for guidance, opens up to him, and lets himself long for him.
Chiron has this deep sense of longing to Kevin, yet he represses it. He tries to forget high school and everything that comes with it as he redefines himself in Atlanta. Yet, that phone rings and everything comes crashing down on him. He realizes that the reason he has been avoiding the things he has avoided is because of his longing to Kevin. Chiron is a man who doesn’t say much, thus the line “you’re the only man that’s ever touched me” feels really big for him. It’s the epitome of his feelings towards Kevin. And Kevin knows this. He smiles and looks at Chiron, knowing that all this time, behind that thick layer, Chiron is still Chiron.
The film closes with Chiron laying his head on Kevin’s shoulder. They’re together. They’re honest; free at last. And most importantly, they’re alive.