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There comes a moment when you have to stand up for your sexuality and identity. In the movie Moonlight by Barry Jenkins, Chiron, the main character, is presented through the three stages of his life as a gay African American male living in Liberty City, Miami, Florida. We are introduced to Chiron’s youth, nicknamed “Little”, running away from a group of bullies and eventually hiding in a drug house. This opening signals the difficulties he faces with his sexuality and identity but Juan, a neighboring drug dealer with his girlfriend, Theresa, offers guidance and support as a father figure. The next chapter features Chiron as a high school teenager who juggles avoiding school bully Terrel, spending time with Theresa, his mother’s increasing drug addiction and prostitution, all the while exploring his own sexuality and identity with Kevin. Lastly, an adult Chiron, known as “Black”, becomes a drug dealer in Atlanta after juvie for assaulting Terrel. He appears financially well off but unsatisfied until meeting Kevin at his diner, eventually going to his apartment embracing an intimate queer relationship. While the plot proves for a strong base, the cinematography is what really makes the film stand out, winning an Oscar for Best Picture. Rather than employing a realist, documentary style, Moonlight is filled with elements of visual design such as contrast, color, camera angles, lighting, and slow-motion that immerses the audience in a dreamlike setting. Furthermore, the usage of costumes, props, motifs, and realistic setting of Miami allows viewers to make connections between scenes and grasp the feel of authenticity. While these elements of visual design can be primarily found in four essential scenes: Juan bringing Little back home, the crashing of the waves, Paula scolding Little, and the diner scene, they are also used throughout the movie for the audience to make connections and gain an authentic feel.
One of the main visual design elements in Moonlight is in contrast. Contrast is the difference in luminance or color that makes an object or its representation in an image or display distinguishable. Throughout the film, only a single light source such as Miami’s sun was used without any fill light. Consequently, this created visually aggressive contrast particularly seen in the character’s faces as light falls off into the shadows. When Juan brings Little back home and talks with Paula, the shot shows Juan with a background of tropical palm trees. Juan’s skin tone looks distinctive as the mid-tones are pulled-out and blue is added to the blacks, creating a thicker color. Furthermore, this scene depicts Juan with a do-rag, diamond earrings, gold fronts, and a dashboard crown. These costumes and props are significant because they defined Juan’s masculinity and hardness as a drug dealer. In chapter three when Chiron assumes Juan’s role as a drug dealer while also embracing his gay relationship with Kevin, Jenkins reconciles that queerness and masculinity can and do coexist.
The crashing of the waves scene features Juan teaching Little how to swim. As Juan beckons him to join, the camera stays with Chiron, holding on him, pushing in as he decides on what to do. The subtle camera moves display Little’s desire to join Juan but he hesitates, afraid to make himself vulnerable. Once he is in the water, Juan held Chiron, keeping him afloat until he was able to do so himself against the crashing waves. This creates a strong analogy: Juan is not just teaching Little to swim, he is showing him how to take charge of himself, how to stay afloat. During this scene, there’s jump-cutting between the shots of Little getting the hang of it and beginning to enjoy himself. The use of the jump cut is to draw attention to young Chiron, who seems to gain a sense of individual freedom.
The next scene shows Paula scolding Little as a pink light emanates from her bedroom. While the pink aura does not necessarily match the dark and intense mood of the scene, it plays to the audiences’ emotions by rounding out Paula’s personality. Although she’s obviously frustrated by Chiron’s sexuality and identity, pink as the universal color of loving oneself allows us to feel empathy for Paula as she is dealing with her own problems of drug addiction and prostitution. This scene is also an example of a formalism style where filmmaking tools deliberately alter our perception of the movie. The use of slow-motion draws attention to Paula and makes the scene memorable as Chiron is constantly reminded of his mother’s disapproval.
The diner scene is when Kevin and Black are reacquainted with each other after many years. Because there was not much dialogue, lighting, camera angles, and eye contact were purposefully used to portray the scene’s message. As Black approaches the diner, lighting is used in the form of a blueish moonlight, casting dappled shadows on him. This creates more of an upscale look, visually differentiated from other scenes. Inside the diner consisted of a practical set lighting: amber colors from the hanging lamps gave off the warm cue on the casts’ faces, signaling softness. The lighting used in the diner scene orients the audience to connect familiar experiences with those in the scene. Next, it was important for the diner scene to be shot with close lenses at eye level rather than at a high or low angle. At a high angle, the character would appear subordinate like a child while at a low angle, they would appear large like a bully. Shooting with close lenses at eye level gives the audience a realistic and personal feel, bringing them into the conversation. Lastly, eye contact primarily served as a form of facial expression to confront the audience in emotional moments. In this case, it was to convey Black and Kevin’s intimate relationship despite years apart.
In addition to the four scenes, visual design was portrayed through the entire film through motifs. The color blue serves as a motif throughout the film, symbolizing the trust between Little and Juan, whose nickname was once “Blue”. It also serves as a connection between Chiron and Kevin as their tryst occurred in front of the blue ocean under the blue moonlight. And in the last scene, the two are holding each other by the bluish light of the moon embracing their sexuality and identity. Furthermore, the setting of Liberty City, Miami, Florida played a vital role in Moonlight’s visual design. Liberty City is historically a black community where the majority of residents live below the poverty line. This coupled with Barry Jenkin and Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s similar poor experience of living there provided a genuine storyline and authentic sensibility that captures the viewers’ support.
While Moonlight is undoubtedly a Black film featuring its all-black cast, it is not only for Black people or gay people. This movie is about a young child struggling to find acceptance of his own identity with little solace from his mother. Despite the dangers his journey entails, his longing for freedom is powerful and the visual design elements of the film help broadcast this theme. Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney have made a very defining and bold film while employing humanizing factors through contrast, color, camera angles, lighting, slow motion, motifs, costumes, props, etc.
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