“Literature and sociology are not one in the same,” wrote James Baldwin in his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” That essay is often remembered for its scalding criticism of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which Baldwin found to be so forceful it was dehumanizing, but if you read closely, the literary criticism is secondary. Baldwin’s real concern was the humanity of black people and how that humanity is jeopardized when black characters become objects. The characters of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are beautifully rendered, awash in moonlight, sunlight, ocean water, and even darkness. Even as the camera swirls through projects and dingy apartments and the trap, black people just glow, every nigga a star. But as your eyes adjust to the star light, this beautiful, reverent black gaze, you realize that this beautified blackness obscures the black people, especially the main character, Chiron.
It begins with Chiron’s introduction in part “i” of the film, which is divided into three parts, each named after Chiron’s name at the time – “Little” for childhood, “Chiron” for teendom, “Black” for young adulthood. Materializing as a white streak racing across the frame, Chiron debuts in torment. Fleeing a mob of his peers, who gleefully pursue him, hurling insults and objects, he hides out in an abandoned drug den. At this point he is “Little,” a taciturn child. Juan, a drug dealer who Little darted past while escaping the mob, rescues Little and takes him out to eat, eager to help him find his way home. Little happily devours that free meal and then another soon after, but even as his mouth is occupied his eyes remain drawn, the torment never subsiding. When he finally returns home, escorted by Juan, he remains in anguish, his expression troubled even as he’s reunited with his worried mother. His humble Miami home is clearly not a home, and his discontent with that reality encases him, defining his every moment on screen.
Jenkins does a great job of contextualizing that discontent by slowly revealing the mixed messages that fill Little’s life. In one scene he’s measuring dicks with his peers, while in another he’s openly pondering the meaning of the word “faggot,” his face always contorted, skeptical. As Little matures into Chiron, a lanky, withdrawn teenager, his confusion reaches its peak. Following a title card, Chiron is again introduced in agony. Sitting in a high school class, he is humiliated by a bully. The scene is horrifying. Chiron and the bully sit on opposite ends of the classroom, the camera stretching to frame them both, but the bully dominates the image; it feels like a one-sided tennis match, each of the bully’s swings landing beyond Chiron’s reach. “My name is Chiron,” Chiron volleys, his name his only defense.
This section of the movie adds more to the pile of confusion, for the audience and Chiron. Juan is revealed to have died and Chiron’s mother has become a full-blown drug addict, turning tricks to fund her habit. Chiron’s feelings about these turns of events are unknown. He occasionally spends the night at the house of Juan’s widow, Teresa, who may or may not have continued Juan’s drug business, but neither this detail nor Chiron’s feelings about Juan’s death are explored. Jenkins leaves these threads to dangle, choosing instead to constrict the film around Chiron’s budding romance with his schoolmate, Kevin, and his growing tension with his bully, Terrel, a choice that climaxes in an entanglement of violence, intimacy, and betrayal.
This constriction is suffocating. At this point, Chiron’s entire character is defined by tragedy. Death, addiction, sexual frustration, alienation, and humiliation shadow him at every turn, a chain gang of miseries. This could be the makings of a complex human, someone in rich thrall, but it’s so conspicuously contrived. Chiron’s entire world has been ground down into people and circumstances that let him down. He lives for nothing, he longs for nothing. He’s just an ornate receptacle of pathologies on a conveyor belt of ruin.
Little was a child so it made sense that his world was circumscribed, but Chiron has free reign and we never see it amount to anything. He is given money by Teresa, but we never see him spend it. He goes to school, but he’s only shown taking one class. He has a wet dream, but it’s about the only schoolmate he’s talked to that isn’t his bully. On the only night he’s shown as homeless, he just so happens to run into the literal boy of his dreams. To watch this movie, you can’t just suspend disbelief: you have to revoke it. Moonlight reveres black people and dwells on the tragedies that shape our lives, but it forgets about the quiet joys that are just as shaping: favorite foods, favorite shoes, favorite songs, favorite haircuts. Moonlight loves black people, but that love is a prison.
In the final section of the movie, Chiron is revealed to have served jail time and made his way to Atlanta. He is no longer scrawny. Now named Black, he is an adonis of muscle and gleaming skin, and the camera lingers on this new body. Black wears a gold chain and gold fronts, drives a muscle car, and traps. Black is hard. Jenkins spends this last arc of the movie deconstructing this hardness, first through a scene at a rehab clinic in metro Atlanta where Black’s mom apologizes, and then in an extended scene that spirits Black back to Miami. Sitting in a restaurant, slowly being seduced by Kevin, who summoned Black down to Miami through an apology, Black finds himself defending his new look. “Who is you?” Kevin asks him, a psychological undressing. Black is eager to explain himself. “I built myself from the ground up, I built myself hard,” he confesses. Kevin is appeased. Black is again Chiron, an object of pity.
But he’s not disrobed just yet. The unveiling isn’t complete until they make their way to Kevin’s apartment, where Chiron reveals that Kevin is the only person who has ever touched him sexually. This is supposed to be the saddest and happiest moment of the film, and that’s the problem.
Chiron has survived bullying, the prison industrial complex, and poverty and rebuilt himself as Black, but, the film insists, Black is a facade. Black is really Chiron, that scared, alienated boy who just wants a home and someone to love him. This reveal isn’t implausible. Love and intimacy aren’t guaranteed, for anyone. But in order to take pity on Chiron, which is absolutely what the direction demands, we have to completely objectify him. We have to believe that the same boy who was beaten for being gay in high school was unharmed in prison. We have to believe that he had no lovers in prison. We have to believe that he has lived in Atlanta, a mecca for gay black men, and has avoided all intimacy. We have to believe that he has “Classic Man” on a CD, but doesn’t have Tinder on his smartphone. We have to believe that he believes himself to be a fake, that his life is a costume. We have to believe that, fundamentally, Black cannot be real, that a hard drug dealer cannot also be a queer man. We have to believe that Chiron is everything that the world has said him to be and that rebuilding himself, his only act of pure agency throughout the movie, is an illusion. I don’t believe.
Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is more delicate and nuanced than Richard Wright’s ghastly Native Son, but it’s got the same source code. Moonlight makes blackness and queerness beautiful by making the world ugly, a move that’s well-meaning but deeply dishonest. Reverence and reckoning are not one in the same.