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Berry Jenkins’ intimate film Moonlight, follows the struggle of a young sensitive black man trying to find himself against his society’s expectations of masculinity and identity. Moonlight was loosely adapted from an unpublished play from Tarell McCraney called, Black Boys Look Blue. In Moonlight we follow Shyrone in three chapters of his life, following three phases of his life that stands out for its form and execution. The story is as much about performed masculinity as it is about growing up gay. And in both cases, it sets out to challenge those commonly held stereotypes of black men. He is pressured by his hyper male Miami environment to deny those feelings and his sexuality. Even if you don’t feel the same emotions, this taps into many emotions that we all might feel because we are all different people at different stages in our lives.
The film stands out for its structure in three acts. This highlights the fragility, mutability and the complexity of a person’s identity over time. By casting three different actors for the three different times in Shyrone’s life. It first starts with the lost young Little whose nicknames is an insult cast on him and a name he must reject. The teenager Sygone who’s dealing with his mother’s worsening addictions. And lastly, the hardened Black that puts on a gangster fasaud to repress himself. This reinstates that idea that we are not all the same people in stages of our life. This continuity between the actor’s performances but to an outsider, they are not the same person. The choice explores the relationship between an external persona and persona in an internal self. Chiron’s identity is always interacting in this community shaped by how they see him and label him. And return how he responds to that perception. As playwright McCraney said the key point to the story is that the community knows things about him before he knows them about himself. People want to place him in a category before he even understands what that means. The structure reveals the struggle for his self-awareness. At the same time of this happening, there’s a particular story of the young black man who is trapped by his society’s expectations of masculinity. Meanwhile, he escapes a force in authentic persona thanks to the help of a few who throw him a lifeline.
Again based on Terrell’s play, in moonlight, black boys look blue. Director Barry Jenkins how to somehow adapt the play into camera work and sound. Moonlight created a triumph of expressive camera and sound through him. It’s not that it just looks and sounds great. Every camera choice and sound design from Jenkins and DP James Lassen has a clear purpose woven into the story. They’re always working to express Chiron’s intern world from moment to moment. The opening scene gives us a big slick swirling wide shot, it tells us this character in martial law Ollie’s Quan is a big man in town and a drug dealer that is calm cool and has status. Like the camera, it shows that he is smooth. The next scene after this one, thrust us into the opposite feeling of discomfort, with an extremely shaky hand-held camera. It tells us little is unsure and insecure. We are placed in his perspective by the overpowering sound of rocks and objects being thrown at the door by the bullies. We feel how trapped and terrified he is. A couple of scenes after there’s a dinner table scene between Little, Quan, and Quan’s girlfriend, the sound is very quiet and the camera instead of intercutting between the three, pan smoothly between wan and Teresa. This proves that there are warrants in the connection between the couple. Expressed by the camera through a special connection. Later in the film, shots from behind him are used to blind us and Tyrone from his emotions. We are always trying to see inside, just as he’s trying, and often failing to see himself truly. The Cameron sound also plays with disjointedness, when we see his mother on a high, the sound and camera don’t match up. The off feeling shows us the transitions into Paula’s calm down as she flips from peace to panic and abuse to get money from him. Years later when black and Kev, again the sound is disjointed from the picture, it’s approved for them the moment is larger than life and surreal. Thus the off picture and sound are used to register a different effect here and the momentousness of this meeting. Throughout the film is also dotted with classical music. Signifying his inner self and at odds with this chaotic outer environment as he yearns for peace and self-expression. This is when his mother is yelling at him through the hallway and classical music begins to play as he disconnects from the event. Meanwhile, in the ocean scene with Quan and little classical music and fluid motion are combined to make it up here the water washes over us. All of these choices are beautiful in undeniably artful but more importantly, they have the intention to express Cheyenne’s in our world. Jenkins also hits on a true note about our expectations. As if this artistic music rising out of his soul is in what we expect from the movie just as it isn’t what others expect from shy around.
Another thing to touch on is the often use of symbolism in the movie, there’s a scene between shy around and chav where they both talked about feeling the breeze. This breeze they talk about invokes the feeling of being able to relax from the daily routine of putting on a persona and letting yourself breathe and be yourself. We hear the breeze and an early scene when little sets connect with one at the beach. We hear it during the first-time chaperone is touched by another person, Kev. After Kev is pressured into turning on Tyrone and beating him we hear total silence as if a loss has occurred. And for the time being it seems that the shy round of chapter 2 has died in to be replaced by the hard black of chapter 3. Only when he later unites with Kev and they open up with each other do we hear again the sound of the breeze. This breeze represents the feeling of being loved. The breeze is also connected with the feeling of the presence of the ocean as well as the film’s title moonlight.
Moonlight takes on the meaning of secret most inner selves, the person who is alone with that moonlight. In Chiron’s case for many years that person may rarely if ever be brought out to the sun. The movie with the three chapters titled after Chiron’s three names or personas is about the search for the true self, both to know and to understand once in her nature and to lift openly as that person. Like that breeze and water, being one’s authentic self has the feeling of subtle motion fluid, relaxation, escape from the confusion of environments that pressure us to fit into rigid expectations. When in the end, Syrone admits his need to be touched by Kev we conclude with the final shot of his younger self in the moonlight turn into the camera and he looks at us including us, inviting us to do the same.
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