In Moonlight, Black Boys Look New
February 10, 2020
Kassia Neckles is in her second year of study at the University of Toronto where she double majors in English and Cinema Studies.
Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, Moonlight, is a study in the coalescence of classical and art cinema. The co-existence of these two modes in one film may seem contradictory as “art cinema defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode” (Bordwell 775). However, the unity of these modes in Moonlight is intrinsic to the dissemination of its principle story: a coming-of-age tale of a gay, Black man in contemporary America. This kind of story is one that proves relatively unorthodox due to prior indoctrination of film-goers through overexposure to white, heterosexual narratives; audiences have come to deem stories centered around characters with such identities as the norm or the default. In the case of Moonlight, the dual usage of elements of classical and art cinema are significant because they come together in an attempt to normalize the multifaceted nature of Blackness and homosexuality, identities which tend to be overlooked despite their natural occurrence.
As is typical of classical cinema, Moonlight “begins in medias res” (Bordwell et al., “The Formulation of the Classical Narrative” 177). In beginning the film in the middle of things on a hot Miami day, the heat of which is expressed through the saturation of colour, Jenkins ensures that the audience is immediately immersed into the world in which Moonlight upon its onset. However, this aspect is the only one present within the film’s opening scene that is overtly and indubitably indicative of classical cinema. This diversion from classical cinema and, in turn, the ignition of art cinema is due to the transpiring scene — as well as the rest of the film — failing to “[draw] upon […] ethico-socio-political norms” and, instead, actively subverting them (Bordwell et al., “An Excessively Obvious Cinema” 5). In anticipation of the opening scene, the first sounds the audience hears are that of the words to the chorus of Boris Gardiner’s “Every N***** Is a Star.” The overt usage of a racial epithet let alone one that is exclusively indicative of Black people may seem jarring to the audience, but it nonetheless prepares them for what they are to inevitably witness; a story that is exclusively and unapologetically Black. This promise is fulfilled once the audience is introduced to one of the film’s main characters only moments after. The diegetic Gardiner tune emanating from the radio of a baby blue Chevrolet Impala is cut off by the hand of Juan, a dark-skinned Black man complete with a do-rag. Those who Juan comes to interact with are also Black and dreadlocked, with their eventual conversation teeming in African American Vernacular English; the characters do not speak in the Transatlantic-accented pleasantries of typical classical Hollywood, but instead are speaking as descendants of an entirely different Transatlantic trade. Furthermore, it is heavily implied that two of the characters presented in this scene are drug dealers, an occupation that veers from those typical of classical cinema for its unpolished, illegal, and morally ambivalent nature. What is notable about the film’s subversion of norms, as introduced by the film’s first scene, is that it is impossible for the audience to shy away from this upending. This first scene is one long, uninterrupted take, only a few seconds shy of having a 2-minute duration. Between the scene’s hard lighting, the saturation of colours – especially in relation to Juan’s costuming, and the persistent framing of characters in close-up paired with the camera’s tendency to circle around them, a sense of forced intimacy is created. Unlike in classical cinema, the audience is hyper-aware of the camera’s presence; the camera actively urges the audience into a dizzying state of near-claustrophobia wherein escaping the presence of the scene’s Black faces is impossible.
The characters that the audience are introduced to are relatively archetypal, but they are nonetheless unpredictable. Classical cinema portrays “certain types” due to “increasing individualization of central characters,” a facet that is seen among the cast (Bordwell et al., “The Formulation of the Classical Narrative” 177, 180). The characterization is present in Moonlight, as each character is uniquely identifiable by key characteristics; Chiron is forcefully alienated and subsequently reserved, Juan is suave and street-savvy, Kevin is outspoken and hypermasculine, Paula is absent and unstable, Teresa is kind and observant, and Terrel is violently homophobic. This model is further enhanced when the secondary characters are compared to Chiron, as all of the male characters and Chiron’s only blood relative are of entirely oppositional characterization. In fact, the only exception to this juxtaposition is Teresa, a character whom Paula frequently derides. This spectrum of characterization works to highlight Chiron’s ultimate struggle with his sexuality at the forefront of the narrative. Chiron is considered effeminate in comparison to his male counterparts, which is made even more apparent by his only inter-character comparability being to a woman whom he is unrelated to. Despite the distinctness of character, in accordance with art cinema, the characters’ actions tend to not “arise logically” from their perceived personalities like they do in classical cinema (Bordwell et al., “The Formulation of the Classical Narrative” 178). Juan, Chiron, and Kevin most apparently exemplify this potential paradox. The audience becomes aware that Juan is a drug dealer and, due to the prevailing stigmatic notions of this occupation, his hospitality toward Chiron and his ultimate acceptance of his sexuality seem incompatible with who he is. Ironically, the audience becomes so accustomed to Juan’s kindness toward Chiron that when it is revealed that he is selling drugs to Paula, it feels like a betrayal, even though the idea of a drug dealer selling drugs to a willing buyer is not atypical. In the case of Chiron, the audience becomes so accustomed to Chiron’s reserved nature, that his physical assault of Terrel and his ultimate transformation into a grill-wearing drug dealer is a surprise. In the case of Kevin, his sexual encounter with Chiron is not only unexpectant because it, in accordance with art cinema, “depend[s] upon an eroticism that violates the production code of pre-1950 Hollywood,” but because he has been characterized by his machismo and sexual exploits with women prior to it (Bordwell 776). The unpredictability of character in line with art cinema and the variation of personalities in line with classical cinema culminate in a cast of endlessly nuanced characters. As a result of this complexity, Moonlight effectively dispels the myth of Blackness as a monolith, instead asserting that Blackness has the capability of being as multifaceted as the whiteness audiences have become conditioned to see on-screen. In a world where Black people are fatally overpoliced and scrutinized for actions their white counterparts are frequently exonerated of, Jenkins allows his characters to evolve and fluctuate in the same way that white characters are endlessly afforded in cinema. The characterization of Chiron and Kevin create a sense of intersectionality in also defying prevalent stereotypes about gay men; both characters are more than the hyperfeminine caricatures that are so often seen on screen. Ultimately, this level of nuance on both fronts allows for the normalization of these identities, as well as the essential portrayal of them as non-stagnant.
Moonlight has a “certain drifting episodic quality,” largely due to Chiron “lack[ing] defined desires and goals,” both of which are aspects of art cinema (Bordwell 776). Chiron is a passive character, meaning that he reacts to events as opposed to initiating them; after all, “art cinema is less concerned with action than reaction” (Bordwell 776). Seeing as the protagonist does not drive the plot, the plot is threadbare of explicit, transformative moments of action. The film, therefore, is full of ellipses that could be cut out without critically affecting the audience’s understanding of the narrative. For instance, the 23 minute and 10-second mark of the movie showcases a 29-second long take of Chiron dancing with his fellow students in the pastel pink walls of a studio. There is nothing inherently necessary about the scene; it does not drive the plot forward nor does it provide any needed insight into the world of the story or its characters. This scene is simply a depiction of Black children dancing. There are scenes throughout the film like this; simple slice of life events that are of no real consequence. Comparably, a recurring element of the film is its large expanses of, if not silence, near-silence. Ambient, diegetic sounds tend to paint the majority of scenes, with dialogue taking the driver’s seat of filmic sound. Scenes that do feature more poignant background noise do so with classical and orchestral non-diegetic scoring; music that would typically be conflated with an aristocratic portrayal are used for scenes, for example, of Black children playing soccer. Like with the aforementioned scene of Chiron and his classmates dancing, the effect of using this type of musicality further attempts to illuminate the ever-presence of Black people in society and the habituality of their existence. In such ways, Moonlight challenges its audience to see Black people as more than slaves or servants characterized by the gratuitous trauma inflicted upon them, or mere background devices for the sake of serving a white lead. The omnipresence of the Black faces in such mundane circumstances posits that Black people simply are. This episodic quality of the film is further extended in the art cinematic principle of “characters often tell[ing] one another stories” (Bordwell 776 – 777). At the film’s 19 minute and 57-second mark, Juan proceeds to tell Chiron a story from his childhood in Cuba. The story is a relatively mundane retelling of Juan acting in regular childish recklessness, ending with him telling Chiron that a woman told him that “in moonlight, Black boys look blue” (Jenkins). The scene is only underscored by the sound of waves and is framed in close-ups of the two characters in conversation, creating a level of intimacy with the audience. The accentuation of the scene with the prominence of the colour blue, in addition to implicitly exemplifying Juan’s statement, also adds a layer of serenity. There is no urgency or tight “cause-effect logic,” as there is in classical cinema; there is no deadline to be met (Bordwell 775). Like with the film’s first scene, the audience is immersed into the, perhaps banal, quality of life depicted in the film. However, especially considering that this scene provides a line intrinsic to understanding the film’s title, this banality speaks to an important notion that the film tries to convey. The audience is able to see the life of a gay Black boy as tangible and real and, above all, regular.
However, classical cinematic principles are not thrown entirely to the wayside in terms of plot. The “[representation] of mental states visually” is pervasive in the frequent “dreams […and] memories” that Chiron has (Bordwell 179). Chiron, being a character of few words, often has his thoughts expressed through these visions as opposed to through speech. These visions, from the dream of Kevin having sex with a woman to his memory of Paula yelling at him, work to further contextualize Chiron’s state of mind over the course of the film. It would be, perhaps, easier for Chiron to reveal these thoughts in exposition, but the purely visual aspect of these representations forces the audience to feel what Chiron is feeling and thus aids in empathizing with him. While the film is largely episodic, the narrative does “set up conflicts” to an extent, as in line with classical cinema (Bordwell 180). The major overarching conflict of the film is Chiron’s internal struggle over his sexuality, which the aforementioned dreams help to convey. But, on a more overt and effectual level, the film’s second part features a climactic interpersonal conflict between Chiron and Terrel, which is highly indicative of classical cinema. Kevin’s assault of Chiron as a conduit of Terrel’s antagonism and Chiron’s retaliatory response are unlike the ellipses that punctuate much of the film in that they are fundamental for the understanding of the narrative, as well as the film’s progression into part 3; in splintering a chair over Terrel’s back, Chiron simultaneously splinters the narrative itself, and irreversibly so. Chiron’s assault of Terrel and subsequent time in prison is a necessary condition for his transformation in the film’s third part. The presence of these scenes, as well as the point of the film in which they appear, are fundamental to the story that the film is trying to convey. While the elliptic, aimless structure of the film is important in highlighting the existence and livelihood of Black people, these scenes of violence remind the audience that the experience of the marginalized cannot be completely conflated with those of the privileged. Chiron, as a Black, gay man, features transformative turmoil in his formative years that are incomparable to any struggle a white heterosexual man would face within their lifetime. The disruptive nature of these violent plot points is metaphoric of the disruption of life that Chiron and so many gay, Black men undergo. These principle points of action work in tandem with another active principle of classical cinema, that is, its “[permission of] a greater amount of redundancy” (Bordwell et al., “The Formulation of the Classical Narrative” 192). The film is sure to remind the audience of Chiron’s perceived femininity; in all three parts of the film, this is acknowledged, with the former parts having characters explicitly allude to this. The reiteration of Chiron being effeminate is necessary for the sake of punctuating the inescapability of Chiron’s sexuality; while a trait that is not as outwardly apparent as his Blackness, Chiron’s being gay is a part of his identity that he nonetheless cannot run from. Therefore, the use of these classical cinematic elements provides necessary structure to Chiron’s story in order to make the magnitude of his identity that much more overt.
Whereas the film started with a characteristic of classical cinema, the film concludes with the art cinematic characteristic of “lack[ing] a clear-cut resolution” (Bordwell 779). Minutes before the film’s end, Chiron reveals to Kevin that Kevin is “the only man that’s ever touched [him]” and that he hasn’t “really touched anyone since” (Jenkins). This scene is understated and quiet, consisting of eight alternating shots between Chiron and Kevin, the aforementioned lines being the only ones that are said, with their conversation literally being underscored by the ambient, diegetic sound of crickets. Since the scene takes place at night, the lighting is also understated; it is dim and soft. The audience is forced to watch in anticipation as Chiron and Kevin stare at each other from across the kitchen, emotions gradually becoming realized upon faces framed in close-up. The final shot of this scene, wherein Chiron releases a small sigh of relief after receiving a smile from Kevin, transitions via an ethereal dissolve to a shot of Kevin tenderly holding Chiron. This scene is barely lit, with only hints of Kevin and Chiron’s faces seen. They make no sound; all the audience hears is the non-diegetic piano leitmotif that has recurred throughout the film. The final shot, which occurs immediately after, is narratively unrelated to those that immediately proceed it; a young Chiron stands before the ocean at nighttime with his back to the camera, his skin glistening dark blue, and finally turns to look straight at the camera. These shots prove antithetical to the typical classical cinematic concept of a definitive ending; there is no grand declaration of love from either character, nor a sealing kiss. The future of Kevin and Chiron is left up in the air. The precarious nature of this relationship punctuates the idea that, at its core, the story that the audience has been watching unfold is atypical. Kevin and Chiron’s love story is anything but reminiscent of the love stories between white, heterosexual couples that have become entrenched in the film-going psyche. It is only understandable, therefore, that the audience is given an atypical ending. Upon concise analysis of Moonlight, the ability of art cinema and classical cinema to converge and create a focused, meaningful film proves not to be paradoxical. In wielding elements of both modes, Barry Jenkins as managed to create a non-conventional, but nonetheless whimsical fantasia that tells the story of a gay, Black man. The attempted normalization of this identity, as well as the representation of it as multifaceted, is made possible through the implementation of varying elements of art and classical cinema, speaking to the poignance of both modes and the transformative nature of film.
Image Source: No Film School, https://nofilmschool.com/sites/default/files/styles/article_wide/public/moonlight_blue.png?itok=6xt1i2Ds
Bordwell, David. “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” Film Criticism, vol. 4, no. 1, 1997, pp. 56–64.
Bordwell, David, et al. “An Excessively Obvious Cinema.” The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 3-6.
Bordwell, David, et al. “The Formulation of the Classical Narrative.” The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 174–193.
Jenkins, Barry. Moonlight. Elevation Pictures, 2016. iTunes