In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue: Symbols of Intersectionality in Moonlight

Moonlight (2016) | Directed by Barry Jenkins | Drama | R | With Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali | A24 | Runtime: 111 minutes | Box Office: $56 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 98%

Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is a complex film that address race, gender, and sexuality. The film’s character-driven narrative follows Chiron, a poor boy growing up in Miami, throughout his early life as he discovers what it means not only to be black or to be gay, but what it means to be black and gay. Raised by an unstable mother who struggles with drug addiction, Chiron is forced to draw from the help of his friends, fellow community members, and even himself during his journey into manhood. With his mother constantly working or out doing drugs, Chiron is left alone at home to cook meals for and entertain himself. Ultimately, the film is about the ways in which Chiron’s experiences with his race and sexuality develop throughout the three acts, titled “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black” to match the names — and thus the identities — that Chiron adopts throughout his life.

To consider these changes, we have to look at two important symbols that appear throughout the film: moonlight and water. Notably, moonlight is a unique display of light because it conceals a person’s body and figure while illuminating certain features such as the face. It shelters an individual from the views and judgements of others while putting an emphasis on self-illumination. Moonlight is given this special significance in this film when Juan, a parental figure to Chiron, tells him about something an old woman in Cuba told him: “In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue.” Blue, along with moonlight, signify a tranquility that allows self-awareness to prosper over external prejudice.

Chiron’s first interaction with water is in Act I,“Little”, when Juan discovers him hiding from a group of bullies, and takes him to the beach to teach him how to swim. With a mother who’s constantly either working or high, Little is introduced to a nurturing and reliable parental figure for the first time in his life. Under the bright blue southern Florida sky, and the clear blue water of the ocean, Little is able to relax and begin to find comfort with someone else. Water, a dynamic source of life, is introduced to him as a calming and reassuring presence that he can return to for the rest of his life.

The next time Chiron is on the beach, it is under the cover of moonlight and he is with his childhood friend Kevin. They confess their feelings for each other and then kiss, making this moment the time when Chiron is able to completely embrace who he is. Although both moonlight and water alone allow Chiron to be more comfortable with him, shown in Act I when Chiron begins to trust Juan after he teaches him to swim and and when he furthers that trust by eating at his house at night when he mother does not return him, it is their coexistence, along with the help of Kevin, that makes him completely free to be himself. Following this powerful scene, Chiron relapses back into his former state of introversion and disempowerment after a group of bullies at school force Kevin to punch Chiron. It’s not until the last scene of the film, when Kevin and Black are together again, that he begins to return to his true self. After this encounter, Chiron is about to embrace his true identity and be a mature adult.

Jenkins displays a remarkably intricate intersectionality of being both black and gay. Because Chiron is such a carefully crafted and complex individual, people who have little to nothing in common with him can still empathize with the struggle his character endures. As cinema is working toward funding and celebrating more films that represent minorities, Moonlight is a shining example of a film with the age-old message to be yourself, but incorporating the complexities of race and sexuality.