SPOILER WARNING: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) tells the story of a life. This is a deceptively simple statement that summarizes a deceptively simple film. By focusing of part of the life of a single character, identified as “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black” in that order, the film is able to take into account the most important moments of that character’s life while not passing overtly passing judgment on any of its characters. The characters define and judge themselves, and herein lies the theme of the film. Chiron is called by three different titles in the film, but none of them are names that he gives himself. In his search for a path through life, Chiron is unable to truly define himself. As a result, others seek to define him, but the film makes it clear that the only person that can define a person is himself of herself. Names can be given to a person, and many are given to Chiron, but only the ones that Chiron picks for himself are the ones that truly matter.
Moonlight does not present any of its characters as simple or without layers. Even the bully that relentlessly pursues Chiron in the film’s second segment is not completely one-dimensional. Curled up on the ground after Chiron has assaulted him, it may at once seem that the bully has gotten what he deserves. And while it is true that the transgressions committed by him against his victim are completely unjustifiable, the bully is at once transformed from an enigma of hate and violence to nothing more than the consequence of an endless cycle of the same factors. Chiron chooses to do what he does, and while it may seem that he has no other recourse, were this true it would undercut everything that the film is saying. Chiron may be a victim, but he is the one that chooses to respond to his assaulters with violence.
Similar sentiments about choosing your path are presented by and about Juan. A drug dealer by trade, Juan is one of the few positive figures in young Chiron’s life. But, all things considered, it cannot be definitively said whether or not Juan is a good person or not. Though he does want what is best for Chiron, referred to as “Little” in the first segment, he still provides the drugs that fuel Chiron’s mother’s addiction. When confronted by Juan about her actions, Chiron’s mother, named Paula, reminds her dealer that he is the one that is providing her with what she craves. There are no excuses for what he is doing, and he cannot justify his actions by any of the conventional routes. Though he considers himself a positive influence on young Chiron, he cannot answer when Paula accusingly asks if he will raise her son. Juan is aware of what he is, but it is path that he has chosen for himself. Like the other characters in the film, the circumstances around them may be harsh and unrelenting, but they will ultimately be the ones who choose what they will be.
This is not to say that Moonlight condemns any of its characters for their actions. Though it does not directly sympathize with any of them, it provides a window into the lives of those who are rarely seen or heard in cinema, and because of this window the actions of the principle characters are understood. Chiron may be a victim of circumstance, with few options open to him and even fewer positive influences available, but in the end he is never completely out of control when it comes to the turns that his life takes. The same can be said for Juan. More than anyone else in the film, Juan is aware of exactly what he is doing and the full implications that it brings with it. It is telling that he does not make it out of the first act, but even more telling that he never delivers some faux-noble speech about the life that he leads. Juan knows what he is, to the point that he recognizes that he will not be able to raise Chiron before his life comes to an early end. Never one to mince words about any subject, he handle Little’s hard questions about drugs and sexuality with unquestionable grace and honesty, Juan sets the course for the rest of the film by making it clear that everyone is their own master of their fate. “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” This truth, stated by him to Little, perhaps oversimplifies the world that Chiron will have to face and is facing, but it still manages to capture the overall theme of the film.
The path that Chiron faces is not an easy on though. Oppressed from almost every side both because of his stature and his sexuality, there are not any easy answers to be found. Chiron ultimately resorts to violence as more of a reaction to his oppression than a solution to it, but the unique effect of this action is that he is removed from the environment that has hurt him. After prison, and ten years later, Chiron goes by “Black” and has become something that is uncannily reminiscent of Juan. But the film does not argue for a moment that this is truly who Chiron is. Going by a name given to him by his old friend-turned-betrayer, Chiron has not created anything for himself and instead is still simply fulfilling a role. He states as much when he returns to Kevin and the two talk about their paths in life. Incarceration has created Black, not Chiron himself. But while he has become an identity, he has not formed one for himself. Still sensitive and sometimes looking of the boy who once looked up to Juan, and perhaps still does, Black is nothing more than another label that has been placed about Chiron. Stunted in his own sexuality as well, Moonlight shows that Chiron still does not know who he is. Though he was never completely out of control of his destiny, Chiron has followed the path that his life has taken as opposed to fighting back against fate. But it is hard to fight back when few real alternatives have been offered.
Ultimately, Moonlight offers a hard look at the life of someone that has never been able to forge an identity for himself. Chiron goes from seeking refuge with a drug dealer to being gay-bashed in school, to being someone that seemingly bears no connection to the Chiron of old. As stated, Moonlight does not judge its characters, nor does it say that they have no choice when it comes to the path that their lives take. But what it does show is that the number of paths open is few and far between, and the less-desirable ones are often the ones that are most easily fallen onto. Chiron could have chosen not to mercilessly beat his bully into submission, but this would not have halted his torment. Even when the school principle offers him aid if he will press charges, the film makes it clear that her options are unrealistic, as it fades her voice out into nothingness. Though violence is not argued to be an answer, it is the easiest one for Chiron to choose. While it solves one problem, it creates many more and ultimately damages its transgressor as a human being. Chiron is not a bad person, nor is he purely a victim of circumstance. He is just a man that must handle his place in the world, even when there are not any easy solutions to his problems.