Your Identity Glows Under The Moonlight

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Moonlight opens with Boris Gardner’s “Every Nigger is a Star”, a song choice that makes statement in itself. It’s widely known that the same snippet of the same track introduces Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. On Butterfly, Lamar used his status as the hottest hip-hop ticket in town to give a state-of-the-union address as to what it currently means to be a Black American (and even if the album was released in March 2015, not much has changed 18-months on). It would be easy to suggest that director Barry Jenkins is deliberately positioning his film as a companion piece to Lamar’s already iconic 2015 LP. A near-exact sample is the introduction to both pieces of art, so perhaps it’s a deliberate pop-culture crossover on the part of Jenkins; an invitation to bring all we learnt and/or felt from Lamar’s opus with us on this journey. That’s what life’s all about anyway, bringing our previous experiences to the next…

Butterfly and Moonlight, whilst both dealing with identity, baggage and how that baggage comes to shape everyone’s ever-changing identity, are different beasts with different agendas. On Butterfly, Lamar discussed the history of African-American people in the US while running the gamut of African-American musical influences to give an honest dissection of how that history shouldn’t necessarily, but ultimately does, define his race in the eyes of so many. How did we end up with such systemic prejudice, how has it remained like this for so long, and how can it possibly change? How do we change that definition of who we are?

Moonlight is a portrait of three developmental periods in the life of a black, gay man, played as a prepubescent by Alex Hibbert, a teenager by Ashton Sanders, and an adult by Trevante Rhodes. Chiron’s race and sexual identity, while important, don’t define the film. Ultimately, this is about a person attempting to discover themselves and then reconcile with that discovery. That this person is of a demographic rarely depicted in cinema is not beside the point, but it’s also not the entire point. The thing in common with Butterfly is the idea of history; similarly, the role it plays in determining who we are, and how hard it is to change once it is engrained. Whether we want it to or not. Whether we should want it to or not.

We bring our own personal history, and baggage, to everything we experience. As a white male born into a middle-class Australian family, I can listen, I can hear, and I can agree with what Lamar talks about on Butterfly, but I can’t live that experience. But as that white middle-class Australian, I can take what Lamar expressed, bring it to Jenkins’ film, and actually relate. No, not to the search for sexual identity by a black male with a crack-addicted mother living in Miami’s Liberty Square projects. That, like Butterfly, I can only empathize with. But there are deeper themes that the film tackles; what it means to be a man and how that masculinity is shaped by the events and people of your formative years. The themes of Jenkins’ film are profoundly human in nature which makes them relatable to everyone on a certain level.

Barry Jenkins has made a stunning film that's relatable to everyone on a certain level. Image courtesy
Barry Jenkins has made a stunning film that’s relatable to everyone on a certain level. Image courtesy

Moonlight further suggests that sexuality, race, gender, and socioeconomic background shouldn’t define you. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you,” Chiron is told by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the male role-model he so desperately needs. That suggestion is followed-up with a totally logical and very human acknowledgement, one that will ring true to all walks of life: how can one possibly not let those traits define them? What should define you? Morals, ethics, values; how you treat others? Sounds nice, but they can be skewed and intangible. They can also be inconsistent. Juan is a man with decency, someone who knows what the right thing is, but he’s also a dealer that sells drugs to Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris). That ambiguity of character permeates the film. That Chiron is black, gay, male, and poor are the only concrete things in his life – a tough combination to navigate. As you grow, how can personal history not be the deciding in factor in who you become?

Moonlight is deeply personal, shot in a location where Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney – whose play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was adapted into this film – grew up, separately from each other. They know these streets because they’ve lived them. The camera rarely gives us a break from the intimate. Close-ups permeate the film because all these events have a say in Chiron’s future, no matter how inconsequential they may seem: A first swim with a surrogate father figure, kids playing soccer with a ball made of shredded newspaper, an impromptu wrestle to prove you’re not soft. We’re always right amongst the action as Chiron’s personal connections direct his coming-of-age, and as a result the connection between protagonist and audience strengthens. The direction intertwines with James Laxton’s cinematography to convey Miami’s neon beauty. Neon signs can often tantalise with a sense of the forbidden, and Chiron’s burgeoning sexuality conflicts with his ideas of identity and masculinity. It’s this neon that is omnipresent in his world. But neon can also be a signifier of life, and if this film is anything, it’s alive.

Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes all play their part in shaping Chiron. Their physical resemblance is hardly stark, but they are undeniably an extension of the same person. As we evolve as individuals, the argument can be made that we actually become different people. You’re not the same person as you were 10 years ago, but you are recognisable as an expansion of a singular being. Basically, Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes don’t look the same, but it doesn’t matter because their performances juxtaposed appear fluid, with the same mannerisms and essence existing, as much as the character of Chiron would love to shed some aspects.

In support, Naomie Harris rises above what could have been a cliché, Janelle Monáe demonstrates talent we never knew she had as Teresa, Juan’s girl and the mother Chiron truly wants/needs. Mahershala Ali is garnering some serious awards buzz, and his is a true supporting turn. He’s not onscreen as much as you may think going in, but his presence is rarely absent, and influences events throughout the film.

Despite his being a true supporting turn, Mahershala Ali's presence is felt throughout the film. Image courtesy
Despite his being a true supporting turn, Mahershala Ali’s presence is felt throughout the film. Image courtesy

Moonlight is a small film that deals with some monumental issues. Divided into three chapters of personal development, it is clear Chiron’s story doesn’t end when we leave him. His own identity is a work in progress. “I wanna do a lot of things that don’t make sense,” admits Chiron, almost apologetically. In spite of his own best efforts, Chiron can never truly escape from whence he came; his personal history will always be a part of him and continue to influence the decisions he makes throughout his life.

You can change, run, compensate, but there’s something that remains. Personal history can force you to hide from who you are and be what people think you should. Then you’re trapped, not knowing or accepting yourself. What defines you then?  This stunning film artfully demonstrates that struggle which exists within us all.

Zac Strevens is Editor-In-Coost of The After previously calling Melbourne and London home, he currently resides in Montreal, where he is either sweating or freezing. @zstrevens

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