By Howra Salaheddin
Since the first time I watched Moonlight, I’ve never really stopped thinking about it. Whether it was about the Oscars mix-up, the online hate that I’ve seen it receive, or the way it made me feel, Moonlight, the story of a young gay Black man in Miami, USA made me, a queer young girl a whole continent away feel vulnerable and understood. That’s the magic of the film.
Moonlight doesn’t just tell a story but rather makes the viewer live the story. The cinematographer James Laxton shot the entire film on a single camera, mirroring how we see the world with our single point of view; how we try to understand everything that happens around us. There are also multiple scenes where the camera turns in a circle to expose the tension that the feeling of being overwhelmed can create. The way it’s edited to focus on one or two of the characters makes us think we’re dealing with real people here, not just characters in a movie. These characters are in no way staged. Look at the dialogues or let’s say lack of dialogues. Barry Jenkins uses glares and glances to deliver the character’s true feelings. You’ll see it in his film adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk-- it’s his mark as a budding auteur, or “The Barry Jenkins Print” as film twitter has coined it.
Moonlight’s main character Chiron has three significant chapters in his life represented on screen. They give us glimpses into the deepest, most defining parts of Chiron's personality and truth.
Each of these chapters have one particular quote that encapsulates the lesson that Chiron learns. He takes it with him to the next chapter.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.”
Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Little, tells him his childhood story.
Little asks if Juan’s name is ‘Blue’ -the name that the old lady picked up for him- this question implies if Juan stayed the carefree wild kid he once was and did he live in that vulnerable blue aura or not. The answer is very important to Little. He needs to know if he should let go and show the world his ‘Blue’ side or just be who the world wants him to be. Juan’s answer introduces a new answer for him. You decide for yourself who you want to be and what you want to show. It’s your identity and you own it. It’s the fight between finding yourself and finding what the world expects of you.
“Stop putting yo' head down in my house! You know my rule. It's all love and all pride in this house!”
It took me a while to realize the significance of this conversation between Chiron and Teresa.
When we look to the climax and the ending of chapter two, we see two moments that seem to come back to this exact line.
First, we have Chiron and Kevin on the beach, the first and only time Chiron lets his feelings be shown and the only time a man touches him sexually and emotionally. Kevin understands Chiron. He is the only other man Chiron has shown both what the world wants him to be, and what his ‘Blue’ side looks like. They are bonded for life through the acknowledgment of their shared experience. The first reminder that they are not alone. When after the intimacy Chiron apologizes (yet again ‘puts his head down’ in shame) Kevin asks him what does he have to be sorry for? (There’s an unsaid pledge to the ‘All love, All pride’ that Teresa mentions.)
The next day comes and as Chiron puts his head up to go sit with Kevin, Terrell comes in the picture. This is what truly changes Chiron’s perspective, you can choose for yourself who you want to be but you can’t make the people you love make the decision too. When after every punch Chiron gets up and stares at Kevin there’s a silent plea, there’s “I’m not staying down. You don’t have to, too.” But it doesn’t get through. The second time is when he looks at his bloody face in the mirror he decides that enough is enough, this is what he decides to be. No “Little”, no “Chiron” and sadly, no “Blue”. Now he’s Black and he’s claiming his new identity.
“Who is you?”
After being reunited, Kevin explains that during his teenage years he wasn’t living as himself and this act of vulnerability and truth perhaps makes Black rethink the question in the diner. “Who is you?” His honest answer is that he’s a man who nobody has touched in years, both physically and most importantly emotionally. Kevin was the reminder that embracing vulnerability is what makes room for freedom. Their scene ends with the soft sound of water and the infamous breeze and Black letting himself being held and comforted by another man again, mirroring their scene in chapter two but with no rushing and urges, as if they have all the time in the world.
The film ends with Little looking back at the camera and us, the viewers, as if to dare us. Dare us to be ‘Blue’. Or to search for our own answers.