I apologize for the short length of this post. I'm trying to get back into the groove of blogging now that I'm officially a Master of Fine Arts (supposedly) and beginning my transition into a doctoral program. I have a lot of thoughts on this film, an excellent choice for the return of my favorite TFE series, that I will hopefully post later.
Moonlight is a radical film. Not necessarily in narrative or aesthetics, though the former masterfully builds on the cumulative evolution of the characters and the latter are evocative and beautiful. The film is not even that radical in representation - there have been films about black gay men before. But Moonlight is radical in that it is a film about black gay men that captured mainstream attention, playing in more theaters than its predecessors and winning awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. It's not new - it's just new to this level of national exposure.
For the uninitiated, the film follows Chiron through three periods of his life. In the first act, "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert) meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes Chiron in with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). In the second act, teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) struggles with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and bullying at school, which leads to a riff between him and best friend/crush Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Act three, "Black," follows adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, revelatory) as he returns to Miami to meet with Kevin (André Holland) after years without contact.
The main throughline of the film is desire; namely, Chiron's desire for Kevin and his inability to put that desire into words. It's here that the film is radical in one very significant, but under-examined, facet: child sexuality.
More after the jump.
In American cinema, we're used to seeing sexually-charged teenagers fumbling their way through the intricacies of intercourse and all of the emotional baggage that comes with it. We're also used to sexually-active adults casually hooking up with one another and exploring their sexual needs (or, more accurately, how exciting/terrifying/boring getting laid is). This is not a balanced representation: straight men obviously get to enjoy movie sex much more than women, and in many mainstream films non-heteronormative sexuality is still strictly off-limits in its full explicit glory. What is strictly taboo, however, is the idea that children could be sexual beings; prepubescent children in cinema are purely innocent, devoid of all desire. Children can have crushes, sure, but crushes are completely chaste, limited to hand-holding, hugging, or, if it's particularly risqué, a peck on the cheek.
Children, however, are capable of desire. Whether or not children understand their feelings, children do desire. Director Barry Jenkins seems to understand this, because he presents Chiron's desire for Kevin as a constant throughout the characters' lives. Jenkins and his incredibly capable actors convey this through parallel visual and narrative constructs: the former the work of Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton, the latter the accomplishment of a talented cast in which each performance builds on the previous (plus Ali's).
In "Little," Kevin (Jaden Piner) catches up with Chiron when the latter leaves the group of kids playing with a ball made of bound newspapers. Kevin tells Chiron he needs to prove that he's not "soft" - that is, that he's tough and "appropriately" masculine. This results in a wrestling match that Jenkins photographs with remarkable intimacy: close-ups of their intwined bodies, with panting heard on the soundtrack. It's a surprisingly erotic scene, and it concludes with a close-up of Chiron's face looking up at Kevin in chaste but decidedly post-coital bliss.
This is a shot that gets repeated throughout the film, but only as a result of dreams, such as teenage Chiron waking from a dream about Kevin having sex with a girl in his backyard:
And again when adult Chiron has a dream about Kevin smoking after their out-of-the-blue phone conversation:
(Though to be fair, it's easy to understand why he would have such a dream when Kevin looks like this):
In every stage of his life, Chiron struggles to express his desire for Kevin. Jenkins positions this tension as the result the expectations of performed masculinity, especially black masculinity. And this tension is echoed in the construction of their shots together at pivotal moments. As a child and as a teenager, Kevin is on the left and Chiron is on the right of the frame. Naturally, Kevin does most of the talking, while Chiron remains reticent. It's also significant that in both of these scenes, Kevin seeks out Chiron, who in turn seeks solitude.
This changes in the third act, when Chiron chooses to travel back to Miami to meet up with Kevin. In Kevin's diner and apartment, the roles are reversed: Chiron now occupies the left side of the frame, with Kevin on the right.
In this new position of power, Chiron finally communicates his desire as well, telling Kevin that he's "the only man that I've ever touched." It's a remarkable moment in the film, for sure, especially considering how films about gay men usually end in someone's death. But it's more than just the ending that makes Moonlight a radical film; it's Jenkins' decision to trace Chiron's desire from childhood to adult that makes the film truly stand out.