If mainstream cinema is upheld to the task of democratically representing its viewers then it often fails. So when a film comes out that depicts marginalized figures it’s passed under the kind of scrutiny that a lot of other films evade. As if clinging to a lifeboat of fair representation, critics and audiences look for holes in the raft – sometimes discarding it entirely, or patching it up with forgiving praise. But Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight (2016) has proven to be an indestructible raft (but not by any means “tear”-proof). As we are prone to do when talking about films depicting minorities, we compare it to those that came before them. Indeed, two of the most notable queer films from this century are Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Carol (2015). They both take place in pre-Stonewall America. But Moonlight is set in the present and the twenty-odd years leading up to it. Though Moonlight couldn’t be more different from those two aforementioned films, all three share a significant similarity: none of these films stages a coming out scene. In the films set before the 1969 Stonewall riots, coming out is an unwise, if not unthinkable, decision. With characters forced out of the closet and their secret used against them. Indeed, a lot of queer narratives play out like detective stories. Who will find out the secret and what will they do with that knowledge?
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron’s life in three chapters, at three separate points in his development. The film is set in Liberty City, Miami, a part of town mostly known (at least superficially) to American audiences as the crime-ridden setting for shows like Miami Vice and CSI. In the first chapter, nine-year-old Chiron, known by his nickname Little (Alex R. Hibbert) for his size and quiet nature, runs away from bullies and is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer, who takes him under his wing. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) offer him a refuge of home-cooked meals and clean sheets away from his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who is struggling with crack addiction – crack that is sold to her by Juan. By the second chapter, Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) friendship with his schoolmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) evolves into an intimacy that ultimately betrays him. Finally, the third chapter skips over a prison sentence to reveal Chiron, who now goes by Black (Trevante Rhodes), as a drug dealer who wears his masculinity like armor.
Moonlight exists in a world where coming out could ostensibly happen. Chiron is a black queer (or queer black?) boy – a visible and invisible minority. It is perfectly feasible that, especially in light of the US Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage, Jenkins could’ve presented a scene in the final chapter in which Chiron tells his mother that he is gay. Yet, his decision not to include a cathartic coming out scene reveals the intersectional disjunct within gay rights in contemporary America. Chiron, and many others like him, don’t have the kind of privilege that would ensure a safe coming out. The thought of coming out isn’t even addressed. It’s not about coming out and revealing his authentic self. That’s not his priority. It’s about surviving.
The closest the film comes to any form of coming out is in the first chapter when Little asks Juan if he’s “a faggot.” This heartstring-yanking scene unveils the disempowering feeling of being, as the queer queen theorist Eve Sedgwick refers to it, in a glass closet. What do they know about me that I don’t? Chiron’s mother, the kids that bully him at school, they have read his queerness before Chiron has had a chance to understand it for himself. Whoever possesses the knowledge about his sexuality has the power.
If the scene on the beach with Kevin is a kind of unspoken coming out scene insofar as he attains his sexual desire, then Chiron does not experience a feeling of liberation. As soon as he walks out of one closet, dozens of others erect themselves in front of him. Chiron must constantly renegotiate his sexuality with those around him. Indeed, in the wake of his very first intimate encounter, he is beaten up and – upon retaliation – sent to jail. He learns too early the life-threatening dangers of queer intimacy. In the final chapter, as Barbara Lewis coos ”Hello Stranger” on the jukebox, Chiron must even renegotiate and reintroduce his queerness with Kevin (André Holland), the only person he’s ever been truly intimate with. What happened on the sandy beach left a trace that can easily be brushed away by Kevin, but not by Chiron.
A liminal space between the ocean and the urban, the beach hosts Chiron’s makeshift baptism with Juan, his sexual intimacy with Kevin, and his dream of Kevin having sex with a girl. The two scenes with Kevin on the beach, in particular, add to the complexity of Chiron’s – and anyone’s for that matter – sexuality. We can see him working out his sexuality unconsciously. Furthermore, the scene at the beach with Juan and Little is a tactile exploration of mentorship and voyeurism. It’s a baptism that doubles as a lesson in survival and love. Learning to float means not drowning, but it also means letting go. In spite of the ocean waves crashing into him, this is ultimately a baptism of hope: Little is taught how to swim so that he can be free. The camera, submerged in the salty water, immerses the audience in Juan and Little’s swimming lesson. If the waves lapping against the lens and partially obstructing the view make the audience feel uneasy, then perhaps we, the audience, are learning how to swim with Little. Yet, if we want to be privy to these scenes of intimacy, then we must also put up with this discomfort.
In the first two chapters, Chiron does not perform his sexuality. In fact, it is his anti-performance, his shyness, that alerts others to his gayness. If this shyness is the outward manifestation of shame, then we never see his shame recuperated as pride. Jenkins is offering a stinging reminder that amidst the gay pride parades and international coming out days, pride is a privilege not available to everyone. Yet, in the case of gay rights, if shame always precedes pride, then why is there almost a collective shame for having shame? As if it is the repression of shame that leads to pride, rather than the social conditions that allow pride to flourish. Indeed, shame is now the purview of underprivileged bodies of color – bodies that are trying so hard just to stay afloat.
Thus, in the final chapter, it comes as no surprise that in an attempt to mask his queerness, Chiron overtly performs his masculinity and his blackness. The do-rag that he wears to bed and the gold fronts are his uniform. The scintillating fronts act as a barrier between Chiron and Kevin, between his performed hetero-masculinity and his gay desire. They are quite literally a front. Replacing the now-deceased Juan, Chiron is a drug dealer. This hardly surprising character development has an interesting relationship to forbidden queerness, for what does drug dealing deal in, if not the unspoken desire and the masquerade of loitering? Though sharing a similar modus operandi, dealing drugs as a means for surviving is clearly less of a taboo for black men in Miami and Atlanta than offering or having gay sex would be. Though they seem to be performing in opposing directions, Jenkins shows how both performances of queerness and masculinity can intersect. Queerness and masculinity can and do coexist.
Another way in which Moonlight distinguishes itself is in the cinematography. Jenkins avoids the trappings of unchallenged voyeurism and “trauma porn” by implicating the spectator through direct address and point-of-view shots. The viewer is directly confronted with the crazed screams of Chiron’s mother, for instance. Whilst Tangerine (2015) – a film about black trans sex workers in Los Angeles – employed a very grimy and gritty aesthetic to illustrate the atmosphere and characters, Moonlight suggests that being black and gay in Miami doesn’t have to be defined by grittiness. Rather, the cinematography exquisitely renders the characters’ inner lives. Black, queer bodies that deserve to be captured in beautiful light, and not just moonlight.
Sarah Foulkes is a recent graduate of McGill University where she received a B.A in Cultural Studies with World Cinemas and Russian culture. She writes, makes films, and performs (hopefully one day for money). She is particularly interested in bringing critical theory to life through performance and film. She lives in Montreal.
Director Barry Jenkins
Runtime 111 minutes