Who Is You?
Moonlight is the first movie where I’ve filled out a form asking for my demographic information: my race, my education level, as well as my TV viewing, internet reading, and year’s movie watching habits. To those collecting the surveys, I was a member of the audience that brought my own story. In truth, the audience was unique, especially to me.
One of the first things I remarked about upon leaving was the diversity of the group. At the independent theater where I often see black and white movies, I’m used to the NPR/New Yorker crowd: educated, nodding liberals who come because of stellar reviews and “the depiction of social issues”. There was also a large contingent from the LGBTQ community and the black community, seemingly consistent with the topics addressed in the film. Of course, in a city as diverse as DC, there is overlap among these groups, but it made for a theater full of people with different boxes checked on their surveys.
And then the film began and the differences didn’t matter. The disparate audience became a single, devastated consciousness.
Moonlight is a Barry Jenkins-directed film based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It tells a three-part story about Chiron, an underprivileged black man growing up in Miami who struggles with being different. What’s different about him? Sure, you could point to his homosexuality, which lies in stark contrast to the machismo that surrounds him constantly as he grows up in public housing. His sexuality and notions of black masculinity are vital to the film.
But as we watched Chiron grow up in a community of drugs—his addict mother, his drug-dealing father figure—and eventually fall into the same patterns, we were brought together by something more than that.
The three parts speak to a universal story of being different.
Even at the age of six, Chiron—known as “Little”—is already getting bullied for being different. Since he’s so young, he is still innocent enough to not understand why this is happening, but the bullies don’t understand it either (though, heartbreakingly, the adults around him do). Little is already an outcast without a real safety net.
Poignantly, you see the spark of him finding someone that does accept him for who he actually is. It can be a bit uncomfortable in the moment, but the potential that Little has found a safe space is heartening.
The second act, with Chiron as a quiet, gangly, scared 16-year-old, captured the audience most. Being bullied in high school is terrible because the bullies know their targets and why they target them. Chiron, meanwhile, has come to recognize what makes him different, but, much like his exceedingly long legs in inadvertently slim jeans, he is not comfortable in that skin.
He is bullied mercilessly at school, only to come back home to a mother who is as broken as he is. Instead of being supportive, she preys on his meek, vulnerable state to get money for her crack habit.
The crescendo of audience response came jarringly when, after having another spark of identity and camaraderie, Chiron faces his bully following an altercation that left him bloody. Well, “faces” may be the wrong word, but there were loud cheers when Chiron exacted his revenge. The moment after, though, is what was particularly unsettling about the scene, because that machismo comes into play.
Everyone knows what precipitated the injuries Chiron received, and the school can do something about it. All Chiron has to do is say who did it...but he can’t. He is ridiculed enough for being the different kid; the last thing he wants to do is be a snitch too. As too many can empathize with, nothing makes the target on your back bigger than telling the teacher. Yet, when Chiron stands up for his dignity, he ends up being the one who gets cuffed.
In the final act, Chiron is a jacked, successful drug-dealer known as “Black.” He completes the look with an old Cadillac and gold fronts. Chiron knows who he is but chooses to project Black as a barrier to the ridicule he once suffered. Of course, upon his return to Miami, the people who knew him way back when know better. This is a facade, a figurative—and literal—front. An old friend who has moved through the film with Chiron even asks him, “Who is you?”
This is, obviously, the central question of the film, but, for me, it is important to look at that question this way: Who is “you?” I think that is what brought the audience together. Everyone spends a great deal of time figuring out their identity, just as Chiron does. Some are more comfortable with their identity than others, whether due to their natural character or the environments that they grow up in. Some can project their true selves effortlessly; others, like Chiron, feel they can’t be who they really are—the “you” they choose is reserved at best, inauthentic at worst.
The struggle of finding yourself is universal because it’s never just about you. It’s important to discover your authentic self, but if you never find the people that welcome you for who you are, then you might never be the “you” you want to be.
In Moonlight, after all the turmoil, Chiron does find that welcoming party, and the more I think about it, the more satisfying it is. It’s this idea that, eventually, there will be a time when someone—maybe even multiple people—looks you in the eye and see the real “you.” They’re aware of the fronts that you put out, but it doesn’t matter; they see through to the essence of what makes you “you,” and they welcome that person. Sometimes it’s romantic, sometimes it isn’t, but either way, discovering clarity in identity is a devastatingly beautiful moment—one that an entire audience can share in.