MOONLIGHT is Barry Jenkins’s second feature film. With a relatively small budget ($1.5-4 million), Jenkins went big in many ways. He opted for a widescreen aspect ratio that, as his DP Laxton put it i

MOONLIGHT is Barry Jenkins’s second feature film. With a relatively small budget ($1.5-4 million), Jenkins went big in many ways. He opted for a widescreen aspect ratio that, as his DP Laxton put it in the production profile (see this week’s module), is typically reserved for epic, big-budget blockbuster films — think LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and AVATAR. He used similarly ambitious color schemes that also are often linked to bigger-budget movies. Yet he made a film that is very intimate, quiet (even the score is more immersive than thunderous), and puts both blackness and queerness front and center. These subjects, themes, and characters don’t often get such epic formatting — and don’t often win Oscars for Best Picture, either.

Indeed, the video I linked on the module for this week (found at the top of the home page) features an interesting report on how film was originally invented, designed, and refined with white skin in mind — to the detriment of its ability to capture darker skin tones with integrity. This history seems relevant, especially given that both Jenkins and his DP clearly devoted great energy to portraying the all-black cast in vivid, rich hues.

I mentioned the word “immersive” above, and I want to come back to that. The score is deeply immersive, but so is the camera work. Think of the opening scene and how the camera circles around Juan and his dealer. The colors are warm and the camera work is smooth and almost hypnotic, as we circle round and round. We are brought into this world immediately… Or think of when Little (Chiron as a boy) is in the water with Juan learning to swim, the camera itself bobbing in the water with him. Again and again in this film the ocean (and nature more generally) is a source of redemption, hope, nostalgia, and becoming yourself. Think of Chiron’s first kiss and intimacy on the beach with Kevin, and of how this film ends with a shot of Little on the beach.  

This film is deeply invested in creating an immersive experience for the viewer, both visually and sonically. It does so in part with wide screen, mobile camera, and a rich color palette, all of which bring us in. 

One of the film’s recurring themes is identity and how Chiron comes of age in conflict with the culture that surrounds him and his own sense of self. Even the chapters of the film, each titled by the names Chiron goes by at each age, point to Chiron’s quest for identity. After they swim, Juan and Little discuss this very topic. 

Juan tells Little that nobody should tell you who to be. Even as Juan is saying this, Little is studying his mentor, his gold and studded teeth cover, his hard physique. Juan himself captures the film’s complexities; he is at one and the same time a sweet, sensitive soul, who validates Little even in his queerness, and yet he is a pusher who supplies Little’s mother with crack. In most films Juan would be a menace, an uncaring, murderous thug; in this film he’s nuanced, human, conflicted.

By the end of the movie Little/Chiron has become ‘Black,’ a strapping pusher like his mentor Juan (down to the vintage car and gold teeth). We see him at his job, when he gets a call from his old classmate Kevin, the same guy who touched him intimately on the beach and who then beat him up, egged on by Terrel. When he’s back in Miami visiting his mother, he stops by the Cuban restaurant where Kevin is a cook. They catch up over dinner and then head to Kevin’s apartment, where they have a pivotal conversation in the kitchen.  Each talks of how they got to where they are now, but Kevin is surprised to learn that Black is trapping (dealing) in Atlanta. He’s confused as to who Chiron has become and who he is now. Kevin even goes so far as to ask, “Who is you?” At this point, Chiron reaches inside his hardened shell and says that Kevin is the only man who’s touched him. Chiron looks like Juan, but we learn in this scene that he also listened to Juan’s words encouraging him to reach inside himself and express his identity, no matter how others may perceive him. We cut to this earthy, quiet shot of the two in embrace, and then the film ends on a nostalgic shot of Little, cast in moonlight blue, standing on the same beach where he learned to swim with Juan and, later in life, had his first kiss.  This final shot is evocative of the film’s title, but it also evokes the ending of THE 400 BLOWS, the famous French New Wave coming-of-age film, which similarly ends on a shot of the boy standing on a beach looking at us into the camera. There is a strong spirit of individuality and identity in both.  

I have introduced a wide range of talking points. Please pursue any of them in this discussion. What does the ending mean to you, as we flashback to Little looking at us? Thinking of the article we read for this film, how do you feel queerness is portrayed in Moonlight? What do you make of the ways this film portrays and visualizes blackness, even in the context of Technicolor’s tendency to omit blackness in its color spectrum? What of the colors and hues in this film, which we read about in the production profile? How does the film’s structure as a coming-of-age film told in three parts relate to its themes of identity? What is the role of nature and the setting of Miami in this film, which toggles between down-and-out neighborhoods and sublime, lush beaches? 

As I mention in the prompt for this discussion, I expect everyone to post new comments and to respond to comments made by others in your group. I expect informed discussions, so be sure to not only screen the movie but also to do the readings and view the links. This discussion closes this Sunday at midnight.

Links: https://lwlies.com/articles/moonlight-barry-jenkins-sex-queer-cinema/