“Who is you Chiron?”
While it’s a question asked of our main character in the final 15 minutes of Moonlight, “Who is you” is a query that permeates the entire film. It is also an inquiry that we’ve all likely had to answer at one point in our lives. Who are we, how do we choose to identify ourselves, and what role do other people play in that identification?
In director Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (which is based on the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney), it’s a question that our main character struggles to answer throughout the one hour and 50-minute film. He literally identifies as three different individuals in the entire picture as we follow him during childhood, adolescence and adulthood: Little, Chiron, and Black (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). His name is Chiron, but he spends most of the movie either allowing people to call him what they see fit, or telling others not to call him what he used to willingly identify as. But one thing (make that four) is certain about our main character: he’s a Black, gay and poor outsider trying to find a sense of peace. He finds it sometimes. You see it in the childlike delight of a bubble bath, through the advice and meals of his mentor Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) and girlfriend, Teresa (played by Janelle Monàe in her acting debut), and in lifting weights. But more than anything, he finds it by going to the beach and watching the water.
Still, there is little tranquility for our protagonist.
His mother (played by Naomie Harris) is in the grips of crack addiction most of the film. She teeters from a loving, forgiving parent one minute to a seething addict the next. His only father figure, while nurturing and encouraging, is a conflicted, high-ranking drug dealer. His only friend (played by Jaden Piner at nine, Jharrel Jerome at 16, and André Holland as an adult) is just as confused as Chiron. One minute he gives him the courage he needs to experiment with his sexuality only to betray him the next. For the viewer, it can feel like there’s no light for our lead character.
But that’s not to say that the movie-watching experience isn’t filled with light — both in terms of enjoyment, beauty, and thought-provoking moments. The film challenges the often strict definition of Black masculinity, the idea that people who make bad decisions are inherently bad people, and in thinking that others can determine who you are and who you are meant to be in this world by beating you over the head with their insults and pain.
What I loved most about Moonlight was that it shares the Black experience unapologetically, and an aspect of it that is very rarely given a chance to be told. Still, it’s not a “Black film,” or a “gay film.” Just like our protagonist, the movie shirks any real labels to focus on being a film about humanity — an isolated human being in the world trying to figure out for himself where he belongs in it. And he’s not alone in that search.
Moonlight really is a one-of-a-kind film and perhaps the best of the year. The performances are stellar. The colors are vibrant. The dialogue, while minimal at times, is always strong and intentional. It’s meant to make you feel something, whether a sense of relief, concern, sympathy or empathy. But in the end, Moonlight truly makes you think. It makes you ponder about sexuality, who is to blame when someone grapples with addiction, the necessity of parental support, the severe impacts of peer pressure, and society’s skewed ideas of what makes a man a real man. But Moonlight also makes you question yourself at times. Despite Chiron being a Black, gay, poor male trying to make it in America (specifically Liberty City in Miami), his experience and journey of self-exploration is all too relatable and real. And it’s one you have to see.
Moonlight has been open in select theaters since October 21. It opens nationally today.