The Power of Moonlight (2016): Masculinity, Homophobia, and Healing
By Claire Dunn
Moonlight is an insightful and compelling independent film directed by Barry Jenkins that follows Chiron, a Black gay man, at three different points in his life. We follow him as he grows up in Liberty City, Miami with no father and a mother struggling with a crack addiction, plus all the pressure of being a Black boy. Moonlight documents Chiron’s struggles with masculinity, homophobia, and accepting himself. Moonlight’s story is told through colors, sounds, and subtext, and it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Many people, even those who aren’t queer or Black, can find something in this film that speaks to them. Moonlight is one of my favorite films and I wish more people were aware of this beautifully told story.
In a world where heterosexual white men are often put at the forefront in films, Moonlight is a breath of fresh air. It has an all-Black cast and was adapted from the unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a Black gay man. Many people didn’t think a film like Moonlight would ever be made in their lifetime. In a review of Moonlight, critic Hilton Als asks the following rhetorical question, “Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like ‘Moonlight,’ [?] … Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace?” Moonlight is important for many Black queer boys and men who rarely see themselves represented on screen but are often marginalized in their communities. Moonlight handles issues that many Black queer men face like not fitting into the ideals of masculinity, experiencing homophobia, and figuring out one’s identity with grace, compassion, and respect. Naturally, Moonlight addresses issues of difference, power, and discrimination through the lens of masculinity and homophobia by showing you critical points in Chiron’s life, cinematography that places you in the middle of conflict with Chiron, and colors and symbols found in the mise en scene and sound design that tell a story within themselves. Additionally, Moonlight addresses the painful effects of hypermasculinity and homophobia as well as the possibility of healing from those effects.
From the beginning of the film, Chiron is set apart and singled out by his peers. In the first act of the film, titled “Little,” 10-year-old Chiron, portrayed by Alex R. Hibbert, is already viewed as different and feminine which causes him to face discrimination. In the first scene, we see Chiron running from three boys and one of them yells “get his gay ass,” (00:02:35). The handheld camera is incredibly shaky as it runs with Chiron. It conveys the panic he’s feeling as he runs from the boys. Additionally, the sound design when Chiron is hiding in an abandoned apartment and the boys are banging on the walls and doors makes you feel like you are right there in the scene with him. Since this is the first we see of Chiron, this scene tells us that he is seen as different and “gay” and therefore not masculine. It tells us that this is going to be a story about masculinity and possibly about gayness. This scene shows the difference and discrimination that many gay Black kids face when they’re growing up for not being hypermasculine.
We can also see the discrimination Chiron faces at home with his mother and her abuse of the power differences between them. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the film, Chiron’s mother calls him a “faggot.” It is a stunning scene where the cinematography, mise en scene, and sound design are pivotal to its emotional impact. Chiron and his mother are standing at opposite ends of a hallway in their house. Paula, his mother, is wearing red with pink lighting behind her indicating her fiery mood and danger to Chiron. They stare at each other; Paula looking angry with eyes full of hatred and Chiron with his relatively emotionless eyes. There’s turbulent violin music playing and that is the only sound in the scene. The scene plays in slow motion and the camera stands between Chiron and his mother. Shot-reverse shots are used to alternate between them looking at each other to immerse you in the scene. The music temporarily becomes slower when Chiron’s mother can be seen yelling at him “you are a faggot” (00:30:18). You cannot hear her say this—you can only read her lips—which adds to the emotional impact of the scene. It is cruel and heartbreaking and although Chiron doesn’t understand what the word means, her anger and hatred alone make it known to him that it’s not a good word. Chiron just stares at Paula as she walks into her room, not able to do anything as he is just a ten-year-old boy who doesn’t have much power in this situation.
The next day, Chiron’s father figure in his childhood, Juan, explains that “faggot” is “a word used to make gay people feel bad,” (00:33:46). This scene shows that Chiron’s own mother discriminates against him, and he knows it now. She makes fun of the way he walks and recognizes that he is different from all the other boys. Paula doesn’t want him to be gay and she thinks it’s wrong so therefore she calls him a homophobic slur and she yells that slur at him filled with hatred. Chiron cannot escape discrimination even in his own home. This shows the reality for so many queer people who have homophobic parents. Chiron grew up in a homophobic, hypermasculine environment with many power differences that were repeatedly exploited, at home and at school, and that impacts him for the rest of his life as I will explore later.
Both scenes I have described so far have the common thread of homophobia. It would be easy to see Moonlight’s main theme as how homophobia changes a person, but the message of the film goes deeper than that. More so than addressing homophobia in the Black community alone, it addresses ideals of masculinity in the Black community, how those ideals harm Black boys from a young age, especially those who do not fit into those gender norms like Chiron, and how those ideals create homophobia. Black men have an incredible amount of pressure from a young age to “not be soft,” a saying that can be heard throughout the film. Micah Gilmer and Riki Wilchins explain in a report on how ideals of masculinity harm Black boys, that “[t]raditional norms of masculinity are understood as a combination of strength, aggression, emotional toughness, dominance, and sexual prowess,” (4). If you don’t fight back, you are not a man. If you cry, you are not a man. If you are quiet and submissive, you are not a man. This is what men, especially Black men, are told what masculinity is, both indirectly and directly. These ideals of masculinity stem from white patriarchy and have increased in the Black community over time. These ideals of masculinity are enforced by parents, friends, and the community surrounding Black kids and teenagers (Gilmer and Wilchins, 4). Throughout Moonlight, we can see the negative effects of masculinity come through in scenes that show how Chiron is perceived as different from his peers for not fitting into the mold of masculinity. In turn, he faces discrimination from classmates and his mother. The ideals of masculinity were so insidious that Chiron developed internalized homophobia, which is a big factor in the second act “Chiron” and the third act “Black.”
Internalized homophobia can be seen throughout the second act of Moonlight, and it is especially obvious during a scene between now teenage Chiron, portrayed by Ashton Sanders, and his love interest Kevin, portrayed by Jharrel Jerome, who we were introduced to in act one. In this scene, Chiron has his first kiss and sexual experience with Kevin on the beach. Kevin has always understood Chiron more than anyone else growing up so Chiron feels safe around him and like he can be his true self. This is enforced by the symbolism of the ocean in Moonlight. The ocean and its sounds represent a place where Chiron can be himself. Throughout the film, the moments where Chiron was able to express himself freely were either by the ocean or accompanied by the sound of waves. Additionally, the lighting has a blue coloring which represents knowing and being true to who you are.
The sequence begins with Chiron and Kevin kissing. Chiron’s movements are very hesitant and it’s clear Chiron wants to kiss Kevin but is grappling with all the homophobia that has been etched into his brain over the years. I think Sanders and Jerome acted out this scene incredibly well. The hesitation is clear and it’s easy to see that Chiron is struggling with this, but Kevin is more comfortable in the situation. Kevin goes on to give Chiron a hand job and after that, Chiron apologizes to Kevin. This is one of the most overt expressions of internalized homophobia in the film. Chiron has finally been able to express his sexuality without being discriminated against for it, but due to all the past events in his life, he thinks that what he did is wrong. He thinks that he must apologize to Kevin and it’s heartbreaking. During this scene, the camera is still and it’s behind Chiron and Kevin. You can’t see half of Chiron’s face when he apologizes, but you don’t have to; his body language says it all. Despite Chiron being sorry, Kevin lets him know that he has nothing to be sorry for, confirming that this is a safe place and making this a positive first sexual experience for Chiron. Kevin is the only one in this act to make Chiron feel safe and seen, so I think this scene is a key moment in Chiron’s development and his relationship with Kevin. Discrimination stemming from ideals of masculinity has weight and, in this scene, we can see how it has impacted Chiron and it has impacted many other queer men similarly.
Like I just said, homophobia and discrimination have weight. They impact people tremendously and have serious consequences. In Chiron’s case, the homophobia he faced at school and at home built and built and built until he broke. After Chiron gets beat up at school by Terrel and his friends, as well as by Kevin, the ultimate betrayal, there’s a scene that shows Chiron turning into a hardened version of himself, the man we see in act three named Black. As Chiron stares at his beaten-up face in the mirror of his bathroom, there’s ominous drone music that grows louder throughout the scene, as well as the sound of a lightbulb buzzing which creates an eerie feeling. The lighting is flickering and has a green tinge which evokes an unsettling feeling. The use of slow-motion as Chiron stares at his reflection and turns his head to look at his injuries adds seriousness to the shot, as well as a feeling of dread. Additionally, the camera is completely still, not using Steadicam like so many of the other shots in the film. I took the lack of Steadicam as a way of showing that Chiron is choosing who he wants to become. His identity is no longer turbulent, he knows who the world wants him to become so he’s going to become that. From the lighting, sound design, acting, editing, and cinematography it is clear that Chiron is done being messed with. He is done with getting hurt. He is going to fight back and show them that he is a man because that is what men do; they fight. All those ideas of masculinity come bubbling to the surface as Chiron marches into school the next day and breaks a chair over Terrel’s back which causes him to be arrested and sent to prison. This is the end of “soft” Chiron, and the beginning of Black, the hardened, hypermasculine, aggressive version of Chiron.
In act three titled “Black,” we find Chiron, portrayed brilliantly by Trevante Rhodes, in an almost unrecognizable state ten years following his arrest. He has become a drug dealer who is super muscular and wears golden grillz. It is jarring to see Chiron as someone so hypermasculine, but that’s the point. Chiron’s experiences have changed him forever. He has built himself into a hypermasculine drug dealer who resembles Juan, his biggest influence in childhood. But this is not Chiron; this is who Chiron thinks he must be to survive in the world. He has physically built armor around himself in the form of muscle and an aggressive persona. It is strange and a bit hard to comprehend this massive change, but as we follow his life throughout the act, we can see that this is still Chiron, just a Chiron that is performing hypermasculinity to be accepted in the world. Throughout Chiron’s life, he could not fit into the mold of masculinity that everyone expected him to, but due to the trauma he endured, he was able to change who he was entirely to fit into that mold. The effects of difference, power, and discrimination due to his gayness and perceived lack of masculinity were so great that he became someone unrecognizable. Unfortunately, this reflects the reality of many gay Black men today.
While Moonlight is about experiencing discrimination that stems from ideals of masculinity, it is also about figuring out who you are and healing from the trauma you’ve endured. It seems like Chiron may never accept himself, but then Kevin and Chiron reunite. In the spectacular last ten shots of the film, hope and healing are brought into the picture. Chiron and Kevin are in Kevin’s kitchen in Miami and there’s no music; there is only diegetic sound and crickets in the background. Throughout the scene, Chiron and Kevin are shown in close-ups with a shallow focus to put them at the forefront of the scene. This is purely about them, nothing else.
In the first shot, Chiron says “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me,” (01:44:24). There is a lot of hesitation to his words which shows the difficulty that Chiron has with being vulnerable, but Kevin has always been someone to understand Chiron, so he feels like this vulnerability is okay. The following shots are a series of shot-reverse shots that depict Kevin and Chiron staring at each other and the emotions they are both feeling. Chiron adds, “You’re the only one… I haven’t really touched anyone since,” (01:44:44). Rhodes delivers these words perfectly, so they show the pain discrimination and difference have caused in Chiron’s life. Chiron knows he’s gay, but he has been beaten down for that part of his identity his whole life, so he has kept it hidden inside all these years. Chiron has struggled with accepting himself to the extent that he has not touched another man and has been celibate since that night on the beach with Kevin ten years ago. The cinematography in this series of shots adds to the emotional impact because the use of Steadicam creates a real feel as the camera moves with the characters and their slight movements. Additionally, the rawness of Chiron’s words and the emotion he shows, which are typically associated with femininity, juxtapose his hypermasculine clothes and build. This confirms that below the hard exterior, Chiron is still Chiron.
As the scene continues, there is a weight in their silence as they look at each other and it conveys how important this scene is to Chiron’s journey. There is a shot in this sequence that shows Chiron and Kevin in the same shot from the side and the camera is completely still. The stillness contrasts with the natural movement of the other shots, and this represents the solidification of Kevin’s feelings, as well as the stability for Chiron that comes with those solidified feelings. Next, the camera cuts to Kevin and a smile grows on his face throughout the shot. A key detail is a sound that begins in this shot. You can hear waves crashing against a beach slowly becoming louder until it drowns out all the other diegetic sounds and this sound continues for the rest of the film. The camera cuts to Chiron who slowly stands up straighter, as his confidence grows with the knowledge that Kevin accepts him and understands the weight of his words. This shot then dissolves to Chiron resting his head on Kevin’s shoulder, and there is an intimacy to this scene that shows that Chiron is letting himself be cared for and loved for the first time in ten years. The orange tinge to the scene creates a homey, warm feeling, signaling that Chiron is right where he needs to be. The sound of waves here is significant because, throughout the film, the ocean has represented safety and the ability for Chiron to be his authentic self. Here, in this moment between them, Chiron can be himself. He doesn’t have to be the version of himself he created to survive; he is now in a safe place where he can take the walls he’s built around himself down and begin healing from all the discrimination he’s faced.
In the final shot of the film, young Chiron is standing on the beach facing away from the camera, looking out at the ocean. The only sounds are the ocean and a somber piano piece. The shot is painted with a deep blue color which is complementary to the orange of the previous shot. As we zoom in on young Chiron, we are reminded of that day on the beach where Juan said to him, “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you,” (00:20:59). With these two final shots, I believe the film is saying that Chiron is finally going to decide who he is and not let the world decide that for him. He became the tough, hypermasculine man we have followed throughout act three because of the discrimination he’s faced for not being hypermasculine. The world has forced Chiron to be this version of himself to survive, but he is no longer going to let the world dictate who he is. He is going to begin the healing process now that he is in a safe environment.
This ending feels hopeful, yet sad. The piano music adds a quality of bittersweetness to the final shot because it sounds contemplative and somber. This sadness contrasts with the safety and peace that the ocean represents for Chiron. The sound of the piano and the ocean combine to say that Chiron has been through a lot in his life and the sadness and feelings that come with the trauma may never go away, but that doesn’t mean he can’t heal, find peace, or ever love again. With Kevin, he has the stability to figure out who he is. He is going to break out of the mold of hypermasculinity the world forced him into. Chiron is on his way to making peace with who he is—to being Chiron, not Black, just Chiron.
Moonlight is a film that moved me to my core. Every shot is stunning, and the story is incredibly raw and real. It’s a film that is extremely important because it has positive representation for Black queer boys that are often ostracized by their communities. Often Black queer men are stereotyped in films, if they even appear at all, and this leads Black queer people to feel like they don’t belong and are not natural. Alphonso Walter Grant explains in his paper about the intersection of masculinity, sexualities, and Black visual culture that “our ways of seeing result from what we are taught to know or what we believe we know. When what we know is overdetermined by stereotypes and biases, what we see is too,” (245). This quote is saying that when you have been taught, by your community and the media you consume, that being masculine means being aggressive, violent, and heterosexual, you will learn to see the world through that lens of hypermasculinity. This, in turn, causes homophobia to be a major part of that lens since being heterosexual is tied up in ideals of masculinity. It is so insidious that often gay Black men can end up being homophobic themselves. If Black queer boys and men can see themselves in media, like movies, that doesn’t represent them as stereotypes and as emasculated men, then that might help them learn to accept themselves as natural and take off that lens of hypermasculinity. Moonlight is a great example of positive representation, and it has struck a chord with many queer Black people, including critic Hilton Als. We need more films like Moonlight to deconstruct how Hollywood views queer Black people. The fact that Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2017 shows that perhaps Hollywood is changing, but there is still a long way to go (Bowman). Hopefully, Moonlight is just the start of major films about Black queer people.
In closing, Moonlight is a thought-provoking film that addresses issues of difference, discrimination, and power through the lens of masculinity and homophobia. As we follow Chiron through his life, we see him face discrimination from his peers and his mother, and how this eventually leads to Chiron performing hypermasculinity to survive in the patriarchal and heteronormative world we live in today. In the end, while Chiron has faced so much adversity, there is still hope that he can heal and make peace with who he is, which can be inferred in the final shots as implied by subtext, colors, and sound. Moonlight is an impactful film that I think everyone can connect to in one way or another. It’s also an incredibly important film since it represents gay Black men positively without stereotypes. All in all, I would highly recommend Moonlight. At times it’s painful and heartbreaking to watch, but there are also beautiful moments that show the ups and downs of living as a queer Black man in the society we live in today.
Als, Hilton. “‘Moonlight’ Undoes Our Expectations.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 17 Oct. 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/moonlight-undoes-our-expectations. Accessed 29 Aug. 2021.
Bowman, Emma. “In A Dramatic Finish, ‘Moonlight’ Takes Best Picture At the 2017 Oscars.” npr, 26 Feb. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/26/516887719/2017-oscars-follow-along-as-the-winners-are-announced. Accessed 31 Aug. 2021.
Gilmer, Micah, and Riki Wilchins. “Addressing Masculine Norms to Improve Life Outcomes for Young Black Men: Why We Still Can’t Wait.” TrueChild; Frontline Solutions, www.unitedphilforum.org/sites/default/files/Young%20Black%20Men%20%26%20Masculinity%20%5BABFE%5D.pdf. Accessed 29 Aug. 2021.
Grant, Alphonso Walter. “How It Feels to Be BLACK ME: Black Masculinities and Sexualities in Black Visual Culture.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 61, no. 3, July 2020, pp. 240–253. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00393541.2020.1794283.
Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins, A24; Plan B Entertainment; Pastel Productions, 2016.