Moonlight (2016) begins with wild flourishes of stylistic aggressiveness. As drug kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali) checks in on one of his small-time dealers, while an addict begs for free drugs, the camera spirals around the three men. Meanwhile, Little (Alex Hibbert) runs frantically into an abandoned apartment building, fleeing a pack of bullies. The hand-held camera bounces wildly, barely able to keep up with the petrified and isolated youngster.
After this kinetic opening, Moonlight settles into one of the most understated films of recent memory. Despite his criminality, Juan begins to mentor Little, having discovered him cowering in the abandoned apartment building. In one of the film’s many beautiful quiet scenes, Juan takes Little to Miami Beach to teach him how to swim. He tries to get the boy to relax as he leans him back in the surf, allowing Little to feel the sensation of floating for the first time. This moment engages the film’s central conceit, fluidity.
Moonlight is split into disjunctive thirds, tracing its central character’s development from scared child to victimized teenager to brash adult, his identity pushed around by the social world as if being pummeled by the surf. Little transforms from child into teenager, where in the film’s second section he goes by his given name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Finally, in the third and final section of the film, the central character becomes an adult, taking on the identity of Black (Trevante Rhodes), a nickname given to him by his friend, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner as a boy, Jharrel Jerome as a teen, and Andre Holland as an adult). Moonlight’s central character is thus ever in flux, transformed by the cruel social circumstances that constrain him. For the first two segments of the film, Little and Chiron barely speak, overwhelmed emotionally by the viciousness of those around him. In the third section, Black hides behind gold grills on his teeth, and a large gold chain, the trappings of his identity as a drug dealer, bequeathed to him by his false father, Juan.
The women in the film range from ineffective to diabolical. After getting beaten up at high school, a female social worker tries to get Chiron to name his attackers. When he refuses, the film removes the sound of the woman’s voice, such that we see her talking, but cannot hear what she is saying. This echoes a moment from the first section of the film, when Little’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) screams at him for staying at Juan’s house rather than being at home with her. Because Paula’s voice has been deleted, we only later learn that she called her son a “faggot,” demeaning him at precisely the moment his sexual identity was beginning to form.
Bodily fluids prove central to the film’s thematic structure. The central character’s relationship with Kevin transforms across the three sections of the film. In the first part, Little remarks upon the blood on Kevin’s face after the boys have been engaged in a rough game where they run around with a make-shift ball, tackling each other. In one of the film’s most expressive moments of human contact, Kevin and Little tumble around the field, as Kevin tries to “harden” Little, preparing him to fight back against bullies. Little and Chiron’s hardening into Black is at the center of the film’s tragedy, as his fluid identity solidifies into his worst possible form.
In the second section, Kevin betrays the teenage Chiron, now causing blood to spill from his friend; in a hazing ritual, the school’s bully taunts Kevin to punch his friend. This second section ends as Chiron dunks his head in a sink full of ice water. In close-up, we see the icy blood produced by Kevin’s punches run off Chiron’s battered face.
These motifs build to full expression in the third act of the film. Black, now a drug dealer, having modeled his life on the now deceased Juan’s experience from the beginning of the film, finally possesses the adult ability to process his emotions. When Black visits his mother at a rehab facility, she apologizes to him for not being able to love him properly as a child. Black cries, as does his mother. The ability of these wounded characters to transform beyond their tragic circumstances is expressed in their ability to shed tears, but a fluid which can merely be wiped away.
The motif of blood and tears only partially expresses the fluidity of Little’s transformation into Chiron and then Black, emphasizing the ever-changing nature of this central character’s identity. As a powerful artwork about the sexuality of gay men, semen comes to the fore as one of the film’s most important fluids. In the second section, Kevin and Chiron go to the beach one night. The ocean is transformed from the site of paternal bonding, in the scene where Juan teaches Little to swim, into the place of Chiron’s sexual awakening. Kevin kisses Chiron while causing him to ejaculate with his hand. In one of the film’s most exquisite close-ups, Kevin wipes his hand in the sand, echoing a prior close-up of Chiron’s hand grasping into the sand in orgasmic bliss.
Late in the film, Black goes to visit Kevin after they have lost touch with each other, each having served time in jail. Black visits Kevin at his new job, as a cook at a diner in Miami. They drink wine together at dinner, even after Black tells Kevin that he doesn’t drink. Back at Kevin’s apartment, very near the beach where Chiron had his first sexual experience with Kevin, Kevin asks him what he does drink. “Water,” replies Black, summing up liquidity as the central motif organizing the film.
As the film ends, we are left with these characters at a hopeful moment in their lives. And yet, for all the film’s celebration of the fluidity of character, what lurks like steel behind them is the unchanging nature of the institutional and ideological forces that subtend individual people’s lives. Both protagonists go to jail. Black seems preordained to turn into Juan, the drug dealer. In its last shot, Little returns to the film for the first time since the first act, standing on the beach in the moonlight, turning his head back toward the camera. Like the look which ends Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1966), the first sub-Saharan African feature film, in which a young boy unmasks to challenge the viewer to reject colonialism, Little’s look into the camera at the end of Moonlight indicts all of us individuals who support a system built out of invidious ideological practices and ineffective institutions. What use is my life’s struggle, he seems to beckon, if its peregrinations only lead to a rocky shore? The only thing fluidity can assure is that the ocean waves will continue to crash around us. Whether lit by moonlight or not, ceaseless suffering overwhelms infrequent joy.