Moonlight – Who decides who you are?

‘You decide who you are’, Juan tells the young Chiron in one scene. But I wonder, what will appear if I look closer? The film Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) won three Oscars – including the one for Best Film, a first for a film with a cast consisting entirely of people of color. On top of that fact, the film also deals with overt Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) themes, a controversial subject in conservative and predominantly white Hollywood. Moonlight tells the story of a young, homosexual Afro-American man who grows up in a poor neighbourhood of Miami, USA. Moreover it shows the complexity of finding one’s position in a masculine environment while having to hide your nature from the light of day.

A warm bond
Moonlight is adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It tells the coming of age story of Chiron, whom we follow in three distinct phases of his young life. The setting of the film depicts a poor neighbourhood in Miami, where Chiron lives with his single, drug-addicted mother, and no father anywhere to be seen. The first few scenes introduce the audience to two lives that are about to become intermingled. Juan, a sympathetic crack dealer, finds the young Chiron in a deserted house. Like a scared young kitten he cowers alone in the dark, lost, running away from a group of his peers that were picking on him. He doesn’t say a word. Juan feels responsible and tries to take care of him, taking him out for a plate of hot food. Curious and worried he asks the boy’s name and where he lives. Chiron doesn’t reply, though he finishes his plate eagerly. When Juan asks about the mother of Chiron, the boy is startled.‘Why doesn’t a young boy want to go see his mother’, Juan appears to think. Upon this Juan decides to take the boy home, where he is warmly received by Juan’s girlfriend Theresa (is that name just a coincidence?). Chiron then starts talking. This marks the beginning of a warm bond, defined by trust and friendship. The next day Juan returns Chiron to his mother, who doesn’t seem to appreciate him taking care of her son.

Juan holding young Chiron

A vulnerable position
Over the course of the film it becomes clear that Chiron is being raised in a vulnerable position, where his mother’s addiction keeps on playing a dominant role. For example, one day we see Chiron come home back from school to an empty house. He is all by himself in the house. He closes the door and looks into the livingroom. What follows is a shot of a still life: a cabinet with an empty spot where the TV used to be. The image says enough. Throughout the film it’s never explicitly revealed what is actually happening, though the director does play with this through his imagery. Another example is an event that place during the second ‘chapter’ of the film, in the scene where we find Chiron in his high school’s headmasters’ office. Chiron is slouching in his chair, blood on his polo shirt, a tampon up his nose and plasters on his forehead. In the moment right before he got beat up by his only friend, Kevin. His friend didn’t have a choice – the tension and fear he experienced from peer pressure, which forced him to beat up his friend, was clearly visible in his eyes. The headmaster tells Chiron, ‘If you don’t press charges, I can’t stop this from happening.’ ‘You don’t understand’, he answers. ‘I’m not trying to disrespect your struggle’, she replies. After this her voice becomes inaudible and all we see is Chiron’s sad face, in close-up.

What does it mean when we can’t express our needs and wishes to others? When there is no care or it is rejected? What if there is no space to care for one another, because fear of rejection because of sexual orientation prevails? The film Moonlight shines a light on these issues and above all else shows that ‘you decide who you are’ isn’t an unambiguous truth.

About the author: Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. Her thesis concerned the discourse of transgender people in Dutch society.
She now cooperates with artists, assuming the role of journalist, and makes use of her knowledge and experience in the field of the ethics of care to provide perspective.
In her own artistic endeavours, like the collages that are her trade, she is intrigued by issues of gender and examining her position in society from a female perspective.