Tarell Alvin McCraney, a successful playwright known for his Brother/Sister trilogy of plays, wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue in drama school. It was not published or produced, and there are no copies available to the public. People who have read it describe it as an emotional work that relies on sensory language instead of plot events. Three stories unfold simultaneously in the piece: a day in the life of a quiet child, a bullied teen, and a drug dealer. The story does not immediately reveal that all three of these stories are about the same person at different points in his life, that these seemingly disparate lives grew out of the same identity.
Barry Jenkins, an indie filmmaker looking for his next project, was shown the script for In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue in 2013 by an art gallery to which McCraney had given a copy. Jenkins and McCraney met to discuss a film adaptation, and discovered that they both grew up in Liberty City, Florida—in the same housing unit, even—but had never met. Liberty City was different for each of them; despite the shared location, they faced different pressures growing up. Together, they set about adapting the story into a film that spoke to both of them, that encompassed both of their worlds.
Moonlight is the final product of that endeavor. It is a story of identity, of a young man named Chiron coming to terms with his homosexuality in a poor Florida neighborhood that constantly pressures him to be more stereotypically masculine.
As a child nicknamed Little, Chiron is discovered in a crackhouse by Juan, a drug dealer. Juan is the first character in the film to demonstrate that he is more than he appears to be. Portrayed with remarkable sensitivity and nuance by Mahershala Ali, Juan reveals his hidden facets slowly. He is actually introduced before Chiron, and he is introduced as a drug dealer first. Only after he takes Chiron to his house and provides a refuge from bullies do we see Juan’s softer side: his wistfully recalled Cuban roots, his thoughtfulness about the word “faggot,” his piercing guilt over selling a product that ruins lives.
Nearly every major character possesses conflicting layers, and the best examples are the ones that appear in all three acts. Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother Paula, a nurse who initially shows love and concern towards her son. You don’t expect the caring nurse to devolve into a verbally abusive and toxically dependent addict, but Paula does, and her transformation has as big an impact on Chiron’s psyche as Juan’s tenderness. Similarly, Kevin (played first by Jaden Piner, then by Jharrel Jerome) seems like nothing more than an amiable friend to Chiron, until he becomes Chiron’s first sexual experience, a role contaminated by his decision to beat up Chiron at the behest of the school bully. The first love isn’t supposed to cave to peer pressure and betray his lover, but Kevin does.
These are the two people with whom Chiron must have a reckoning in the third and final act. They are the only two present in all three acts, and thus they are the only two who know the buried, contrasting parts of Chiron’s personality.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Barry Jenkins talks about the transition between Chiron forgiving his mother and reuniting with Kevin, two scenes with very different emotional atmospheres. The interviewer draws attention to the music, assuming (like me) that the use of Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucú paloma” as Chiron drives away from his mother is a reference to Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. Jenkins says it’s actually an homage to Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, because that was the first queer movie Jenkins ever saw. Jenkins also comments on the change in tone between Chiron’s visits with his mother and with Kevin, symbolized by a change in music to Jidenna. “There’s also a hard cut out of it to fucking ‘Classic Man’—the Caetano is very soft and cool, the Jidenna comes in hard as fuck. Because again, worlds clash,” he says about the transition.
I can’t think of a better way to describe the climactic conversation of the film, when Chiron meets Kevin in his restaurant, and they struggle to reconnect. Chiron’s new outward appearance is striking, even intimidating, as he has remade himself in Juan’s muscular image. But it doesn’t take long for Kevin (now played by André Holland) to see past it, to remember the other worlds inside Chiron: the shy boy Chiron was, and still is. Holland expertly lends Kevin a playful warmth that allows Chiron to trust him, to open up to him once again. And it is in that terrifying moment, when Chiron finally vocalizes his desire for Kevin, that Moonlight finds its climax.
Before I say more about this moment, let me tell you how I feared Moonlight would end: in violence. I worried that the film would be a tragedy, the story of its main character falling deeper and deeper into crime and, eventually, death. Too often, even respected drama films fall into this trap: that to achieve a tense, cathartic climax, violence must be involved. How many stories that are supposedly about deep, human characters and deep, profound questions end with one character simply killing another?
But not Moonlight. Violence is present in Barry Jenkins’ film, but always because it is a fact of Chiron’s life, never for the cheaper purpose of heightening drama, and never as an end. A worse film might conclude where the third chapter of Moonlight begins, with Chiron transformed through an act of violence (smashing a chair on his bully, Terell) into an imposing, muscular drug dealer, to demonstrate how bullying and socioeconomic pressure took a sensitive young man and turned him into a hypermasculine criminal. A worse film than that might end with Chiron’s death, shot by police or a rival dealer, to demonstrate how poverty and crime consume the people born into it.
Moonlight does not want to moralize about bullying or lecture about the dangers of drug dealing; it doesn’t have to. It implicitly acknowledges that bullying and socioeconomic pressure can transform a person, that violent ends frequently wait for criminals, but its purpose is never so simple a message, because Moonlight’s purpose is Chiron.
These pressures are a part of Chiron, alongside his painful memories about his mother, Kevin, and his bullies, and his fond memories of Juan. They are worlds clashing within one identity, as jarring as pairing Caetano Veloso with Jidenna. But because they are within Chiron, they are smaller than him. Because Moonlight concerns itself first and foremost with Chiron, it allows him to be greater than the pressures that once threatened to consume him.
Chiron opening up to Kevin is the final piece. In an interview with Flavorwire, McCraney sums up the moment perfectly: “We don’t often get to see that moment where someone has to actually take off the avatar that they’ve put on to protect themselves.”
With one line of dialogue, Chiron does just that. He decides for himself “who [he’s] going to be,” as Juan put it. Amidst all the worlds within his psychology, he has chosen his identity. And as he stares into space with Kevin nearby, he seems to see Little standing in the moonlight looking back at him, upright and assured.