W.E.B. Du Bois, the author of The Soul of Black Folk, said that black Americans possessed a “double-consciousness,” a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” He put forward that the dominating force of whiteness in America always has to be reconciled with the enduring strength and presence of one’s blackness. This duality—the fight between staying true to oneself or to the outward pressures of society—present in many members of oppressed communities, is a constant thematic string throughout Barry Jenkins’s film, Moonlight.
The film, framed through three movements—fitting due to its classical soundtrack—follows Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert), a young black boy growing up in Liberty City, Miami. Nicknamed “Little” by the boys that torment him at school, Chiron fights a constant battle between his desire to be seen as manly and tough to those around him and his confusion over budding homosexual desires. Living in a world that sees being gay and being manly as incompatible, he constantly searches for what it means to be a man and what he can do to achieve masculinity. This, he believes, is the sole path to power and acceptance in the gritty and unforgiving world he inhabits.
With a crack addict mother at home and no father in sight, Chiron lacks the stabilizing paternal influence to answer the inevitable questions that arise in any young man’s life. In this void steps Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug dealer who intervenes one day between Chiron and a group of bullies chasing him home. Not the stereotypical role model, Jenkins presents a complete picture of the compassionate and warm Juan, who will be a constant presence in Chiron’s hectic life. Juan represents the epitome of manhood that Chiron aspires to: macho, feared, and in a line of work that inspires an immediate sense of respect on the street. He is also incredibly tender and loving to Chiron, a boy he plucked out of the abyss for no apparent reason other than out of kindness.
One day, while Chiron is at Juan’s house briefly escaping the burden of his mother, he asks one of those questions: “What’s a faggot?” No doubt internalizing the taunts he hears at school.
“A word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan responds.
Heart wrenchingly, Chiron asks again, “Am I a faggot?”
“You could be gay,” Juan tells the young boy sitting across from him, “but you don’t let anyone call you no faggot.” Juan doesn’t let Chiron fall to enticing option of letting others define who he is. To grow up—regardless of one’s race and sexuality—is to ask the eternal questions of youth: Who am I? What am I meant to be?
In this moment—one of the most poignant in the film—Chiron is allowed to be vulnerable, finally accepting the hard reality that he doesn’t have all the answers to life’s questions.
These moments of weakness, of honesty really, come to define Chiron. When a night on the beach with his best friend builds into his first intimate experience with a man, he returns home with his sole smile of the whole film. His first—and only—moment of true sexual expression represents a watershed for his development as a young man. In that moment, unlike so many others throughout his life, he lets his guard down and shows a side of him he had never dared to before. His extension of affection is reciprocated with an equal amount of care and compassion. He sheds all of the attitude, bravado, and machoness he was told being a man was all about and reveals a rawness he had not even known was there. He realizes, even if just for a moment, that to be man is not to live life following in the steps of others, no matter how “tough” they may be. To be a man—as it is to be anyone—is simply to be. It is what you make it; you mold it into the shape you desire.
This fleeting moment before the harshness of reality set back in with the light of the rising sun echoes yet another piece of advice Juan imparted on a younger Chiron: “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gotta be.”