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Moonlight was directed by Barry Jenkins, adapting the unproduced play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight is a coming of age movie of a young African American man through three stages of his life. Barry Jenkins’s first film, Medicine for Melancholy, has a similar theme to his second feature film. Both films use color to reflect the mood of the scene and what the characters are thinking. Similar themes are present in both films, but Jenkins’s sophomore film shows how much the filmmaker has improved. Moonlight’s cinematography uses bold colors and stunning shots to create an emotional experience. Moonlight’s camera work and mise-en-scene, specifically the lightning, is one of the film’s most important parts of its cinematography.
Moonlight’s cinematography is the most important in establishing not only the characters and the environment but the relation between the two and their importance to the main theme of the film. The theme, being who we truly are and what our environment expects us to be, is the protagonist’s main conflict. The film is separated into three chapters, ‘Little’ as his youth, ‘Chiron’ as his adolescence, and ‘Black’ as his early adult life. The main characters self-discovery is told through these chapters, each through a different developmental phase of his life. The beginning of the film starts with establishing Chiron, the protagonist, and Juan’s, the mentor, place in the community. When Juan is introduced, the camera follows behind him smoothly. The entire scene is a single shot, showing how natural Juan fits in the neighborhood with effortless authority. When Juan talks with his employee and sees him reject a customer, the camera circles around the characters. This arc shot is a motif that is used repeatedly throughout the film and has two meanings. Here, it symbolizes the community and tight connection between the boss, employee, and customer. Later it is the friendship between young schoolboys during a ballgame. But a community can also be a cage. For Chiron, his community ostracizes him for being gay. Immediately after the first scene, the camera moves to Chiron being chased by his bullies. The camera becomes shaky, evoking panic as it chases after Chiron. Now, it represents his world, one of anxiety and persecution. As Chiron finds a hiding place, the bullies insults become louder and louder. The camera circles around Chiron, but it is extremely close to the character, unlike how it was a comfortable distance in Juan’s scene, another way of showing how different their worlds are. The contrasting sound design in both scenes also shows each character’s place in their community. Juan’s calm conversation with his employee is followed by loud insults from Chiron’s bullies. While Juan is respected by his peers, Chiron is persecuted by them. After the bullies leave, Chiron wanders around and finds a syringe, foreshadowing his profession in the third part of the film. When Juan breaks down the boards to the house, lights fill the room. Juan has burst into Chiron’s sanctuary, literally and metaphorically, and offers him food as a source of comfort. The way each character talks are also contrasting, Juan speaks relaxed and caring while Chiron does not speak. The close-up of Chiron after Juan’s offer clearly shows his anxiety.
Another scene where the camera circles around the characters is when Chiron’s bullies are forcing his friend to hit him for being “different”. The camera is sped up and closing in on Chiron and his friend, trapping them even further. The camera is always placed as close to the actors as possible, so as to put the viewer in the scene. A fourth wall break happens when Chiron and his friend look directly at the camera as if the character is talking to the audience. It makes the audience absorbed into the scene and sees the intensity of what the character is feeling. Moonlight is shot in anamorphic format, which made it when the characters stare into the camera that much more dramatic. When a character is the only one in an expanded frame, it highlights how alone they are. Many of Moonlight’s moving moments happen when actors look directly into the lens, letting the audience look into the character’s eyes and have a deeper emotional connection with the characters. It is a lens that has been used on many beloved movies and cinematographer James Laxton has said that “It’s for grand stories and big-scope thoughts. Maybe subconsciously we chose it for Moonlight in an effort to depict this community in a brand new light.”
Jenkins reflects on the theme of prejudice through an array of symbolistic features to illustrate the evolution of Chiron from a man to a child. A prominent scene depicts this where the protagonist is taught how to swim in the ocean by his father figure Juan. The composition of this notable scene juxtaposes the ingrained idea of Juan being a gang affiliated drug dealer as he takes on the role of ‘father’ of the protagonist. Yet he is responsible for supplying Paula, Chiron’s mother with drugs. Water is used as a symbol of transformation and reborn, it precedes every important choice the protagonist makes. Little is taught how to swim by his new father-figure, he is compelled to float on the water, “Let go, don’t fight the water,” Juan says as he cradles his head through this revelatory moment. The concept of prejudice is also recreated to portray the mistreatment of the coloured.
Moonlight was filmed in Liberty City, Miami, where the neighborhood houses are pastel-colored and trees a tropical green. The bright colors used are different than the usual dark and harsh colors American indie movies that tackle social issues usually have. The neighborhood has pastel-colored houses, the Atlantic Ocean a blue-green, and Chiron’s mother being bathed in neon pink while shouting at him. When Juan beckons Chiron to teach him how to swim, it is a long shot as Chiron decides what to do. When Chiron finally joins him, the camera jump cuts and it is no longer a long shot as Chiron begins to have fun. The Atlantic Ocean is a bright blue while the scene challenges what black fathers are supposed to be. Natural light was used during this scene and the humidity in the air made the actors skin a softer glow. As the sky progressively turns grey, it contrasts against the clear ocean, presenting how the characters feel emotionally. Chiron’s mother being highlighted in neon pink lights her femininity despite her sour expression. When Chiron’s mother begins to leave, she continues to stare at Chiron and walk into the door where the pink lighting was coming from. This lighting gives the character depth and not just a negative stereotype of an abusive mother. Lighting is used to challenge stereotypes by juxtaposing the dark things that happen to characters with bright and beautiful lights in the background. Lighting focused on skin tone and making skin color look natural and appealing. Cinematographer Laxton used an Arri Alexa digital camera that displays skin tone more vibrantly as skin tone was an important aspect of Moonlight. According to Laxton, “We wanted to make sure our black-skinned actors would look natural and interesting skin tone. We were lighting them with a style that was more realistic than flattering and we wanted the skin tones to feel warm and not harsh.” (James Laxton Creates Poetic Look). Unlike other films, Moonlight does not use a realistic aesthetic that other films that deal with drug addiction and lower socioeconomic classes. Colorist Alex Bickel achieved a vibrant film by increasing the contrast and saturation while preserving details and color. The second chapter of the film uses German film stock which is known for adding cyan to its shots, which alludes to the film’s name. The film’s most famous quote, “In moonlight black boys look blue”, which is shown most providently in the second chapter with its green-blue hue. When inside homes or night scenes, Laxton used color filters on the camera lenses with pinks or greens to make sure that the emotion the characters were feeling came across. Light bulbs were changed from green to blue during a diner scene later in the film. Before Chiron walks into a diner the lightbulbs outside were changed to give off a blue hue instead of the natural green to make Chiron look softer. Natural light is also used during the diner scene. The light inside the building came from the lamps and it gave a natural and realistic feel to the diner. The natural light gives the characters a soft glow and presents the characters in a way that does not feel fabricated.
Most of Moonlight’s angles are eye-level, close to the actor’s faces and breaks the fourth wall frequently. At the beginning of the film, Chiron is bullied during a soccer game. The camera gives Chiron’s point of view so that when the other boys stare at Chiron, they are looking at the audience. Among these boys is Kevin the only one who looks at Chiron like a person and in Chiron’s point of view he looks at Kevin’s bruise instead of him staring back like the other boys. When Kevin and Chiron wrestle, the camera becomes shaky and cuts to shots of their arms and legs. Later in the film when Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, the camera is level to the water so that the audience feels like they are swimming with the characters. Back at school, after Kevin was forced to beat up Chiron by his bullies, Chiron sits in an office and tunes the principal’s voice out. The camera goes to a low-angle shot as Chiron’s glare becomes harder and the sound of his harsh breathing becomes louder. The angle of the shot exaggerates Chiron’s gaze and makes it look more heartbroken than if it was an eye-level shot. Later in the film when Chiron enters the diner scene, it is a long shot to present the setting and feel of the diner. When Kevin notices Chiron sitting at the bar the shot cuts to a close-up of Kevin looking directly looking into the lens. Kevin’s look of shock of seeing Chiron again is clear in his eyes and the audience feels it with him. Near the end of the film, Chiron is standing in a doorway but the camera has skewed the perspective by not standing directly in front of the doorway, making Chiron look small and confined. Then when Kevin enters the scene, the camera stands in front of the doorway and now it looks gigantic. At the end of the film, the last shot is Chiron standing in front of the Atlantic in the moonlight. The camera slowly goes toward Chiron until he turns his head to look behind him. The camera stops and Chiron looks to the audience as if beckoning to join him.
Moonlight is such a beautiful experience because of the way Director Jenkins uses color, camera angles, and lighting to connect the audience to the characters. Jenkins uses all the tools there are in camerawork to create a story that’s personal to each and every person. Jenkins has said that, “the film being a fever dream…and that the audience is part of the dream.” Jenkins and Laxton uses the way characters are lit and how neighborhoods are shot to challenge many stereotypes about black communities. It is a coming-of-age story that uses every camera trick in the book to create a film that the audience feels absorbed in the entire way through.
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