An Education: On Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight”

By Francey RussellNovember 14, 2016

An Education: On Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight”
THERE IS A SPECIAL FORM of heartbreak that saturates intelligent movies about difficult childhoods. Such films don’t just show a child in pain, which would be sad enough; they suggest that this pain, if it is complicated enough, will find its way into the weave of this young person’s life, or set the weave itself. A child doesn’t just experience pain; he or she learns lessons from it. In these movies, a little life takes in the pressure of the world, often mistaking that pressure for love or for truth. Everything, in other words, is instruction.

Moonlight, one of the best movies there is about childhood, brings its viewers down into the tangible, living detail of these scenes of instruction. The film doesn’t so much follow a boy through the stages of his development as drop us into the moments of his formation. These are the scenes that he will see his whole life, as memories or as nightmares or as blind repetition.

In an interview, Alice Munro once said, “I just see people living in flashes.” But there are also threads that run through the flashes, and in Moonlight, these threads are teachers.


Moonlight is split into three segments, each titled after the central character’s names: Little, the embarrassing name given to him by kids at school; Chiron, the name he was given at birth; and Black, the nickname a boy gave him. This character is played by three different actors, three different bodies: Little (Alex Hibbert) is skittish and silent, his eyes either intent on the ground or gazing wide at the people around him. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is all limbs, moving through the high school and housing projects with wary gracefulness. Black (Trevante Rhodes) is thick and muscular with gold rims on his teeth, a body self-created through insomniac pushups and prostheses.

We first see Little running, with the camera’s movements locked in with the bodies that it films: if boys are running, it runs along. While hiding from some threatening kids, Little meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a tall, warm man who immediately adjusts to and accommodates Little’s nervousness with the unassuming sensitivity of a gifted teacher. Juan moves slowly, laughs lightly, and invites Little to eat with him, all with the kind of ease that communicates that Little is safe and that all of this is no big deal, all okay.

Within the first few minutes of the film, the stakes have been set. Little displays the cautious withholding of a child who has already been hurt and has learned to be careful, but also the curiosity of a boy desperate to connect with someone. Juan will either be the person to fill that role, or not.

Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) give Little dinner and let him stay silent. When Juan returns Little home the next day, Little’s mother Paula is more annoyed with Juan than worried about Little. Little goes back and back to Juan, who isn’t bothered. Juan teaches him to swim in the ocean, the camera floating low in the water with them, their figures separating sea from sky, like mountains; on the beach, Juan tells Little that he will have to figure out who he is for himself, and also that black people are everywhere, despite the way it can sometimes seem.

Juan deals drugs for a living, and Little’s mom buys them. He confronts her for smoking crack on his corner, and she unleashes jealous rage on him for the bond that he’s developed with her son. It is one of the only scenes where the film loses its tether to Chiron, and the audience sees and hears things that he does not. We see how the adults in his life think of him and want to love him and tell each other they can’t.

Jenkins has said that he doesn’t think of Moonlight as realist cinema, so much as an immersive experience. The film is formally imaginative, finding so many ways of using cinematic language to envelop its audience: swirling cameras, cutting sound, chopped and screwed symphonies, electric color and light. Some of the most immersive scenes are also the simplest, when the film gears itself to the pace of an interaction and takes the time it really takes for a moment to happen. These are scenes vibrating with significance and unknowing, where whole lives wait to take one of their lasting shapes. I found myself keeping very still, holding my breath.

But it isn’t quite right to say, as the saying goes, that in these moments time stops. When Little sits at the kitchen table and asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?” and then, “Am I one?” time does not stop; just the opposite happens: we may hold our breath but time pushes on and the next moment is already here, and every beat after the question is raised will count as part of the answer. We also know that the fact that Little needs to ask this means that so much has already been learned.


In Part ii (“Chiron”), Chiron is still “soft” and still a target at school. A character says offhandedly that Juan is gone, and Paula is an addict now. Chiron’s face is tight and locked up, eyes locked down, except for when he lets them up to look over his shoulder or at boys.

Chiron has a friend, Kevin, who ribs him and brags about sex and calls him “Black.” Sitting on the beach one night with Kevin, Chiron asks why he calls him that. Kevin says it’s just a nickname. They are alone, getting stoned under bright streetlights, facing the water, talking about the “weird” things they think about doing sometimes. Chiron asks Kevin, “What kind of a dude goes around giving other dudes nicknames?” It sounds like a jab — like that word “faggot” again — but Chiron’s quick glance back at Kevin reveals that his question is real: like, “No really, exactly what kind of dude does that? You? Me?”

Here are two black boys on the beach in Miami in the 1980s, opening up to each other, looking at each other. The actors are beautiful and tender, as is the direction, cinematography, and dialogue. It feels hopeful and so, so fragile. They kiss, and Chiron pushes his fingers into the sand, finding some tactile grounding, finding little pleasures everywhere.

After, in his kitchen at home, Chiron’s face eases into a private, luxurious smile, a smile just for himself. But he only gets a moment to hold it before he is snapped back into his life by the sight of his mom passed out on the couch. When he goes to put a blanket on her, she looks up at him grinning and high and says, “You don’t love me anymore.”

This is where the scene ends for Chiron. Not with Kevin on the beach, not alone with the feeling of it, but with the knowledge that his love is wounding. Another lesson.


Paula (Naomie Harris) is a full-blown addict. She is given over to her addiction and gives everything that she has to it. She taunts and snarls at Chiron, grabbing at his pockets for the money she knows that Teresa gives him, wild with need and with the knowledge that this other woman is playing a mother’s role. Hers is a frightening, unpredictable, desperate love. Even when things improve for her — later, in the next sequence of the film — she calls Chiron too late and too often, when he is in bed, always alone.

Crucially, while Chiron changes shape, the same actress plays Paula throughout all three segments. Even for Black, grown and strong, his mom is still the woman who can explode the house, who responds to his big eyes by screaming and charging out of the room. Little saw her do that; the scene in Part i is filmed with florescent lights and filled with the sounds of warped violins. In slow motion her mouth forms the words Don’t look at me! but no sound comes out. This scene returns in Part iii with all its ancient force and fury, in the form of a nightmare. Black wakes in a start. He prepares a sink full of ice to dip his face into with the nonchalance of a familiar routine. Paula may have changed — and she really does — but Black’s mom is still, always, that person, the frightening person who helped form his patterns.

In a CBC News roundtable discussion of the film featuring black male artists and writers, David Lewis-Peart expressed concern that the character of Paula edges up against a stereotype. Because the film does not spend time contextualizing her addiction, and because American popular culture rarely devotes serious, sympathetic attention to understanding characters like her, the risk is that Chiron’s mother loses some depth and dimension. Paula thus seems to repeat the kind of familiar stereotype of black life that the film seems intent on challenging.

But Paula exists in the film as seen through a child’s eyes. Like Juan, Teresa, and Kevin, Paula is a character refracted through Chiron’s memory, fantasy, and experience. Jenkins frames her as a figure for Chiron, even when she is not there for him. When she pushes up against the camera and steps into angular, magenta lighting, the film immerses its audience in Chiron’s vivid experience. These are not depictions of Paula as a full person, but of Paula as an overwhelming presence in her son’s life. This use of audiovisual hyperbole is effective for the purpose of the film, but risky in a movie culture that routinely fails to depict black characters as full persons and presents black life as uniformly destitute.

Jenkins’s choice to present Paula as he does is part of what makes her final scene so powerful: as she and Black talk across a table on the grounds of a rehabilitation center, Jenkins films her in a steady, compassionate medium shot in calm natural light, suggesting that Black — and perhaps the audience — is now able to see this character undistorted by old feelings and fantasy.


After the lights came on at the screening I attended, the person next to me and I stayed and talked about the movie until we were asked to leave. Movies like this can make you feel a little like Chiron after his evening with Kevin, where the force and magic of the experience needs to be held for a bit, given a chance to really matter. My neighbor thought it was noteworthy that there is no religion in Chiron’s life, no presence of the church at all. There are also no white people. In movies about black communities, these figures can function, however dysfunctionally, as symbols of an outside, an escape, a savior, a counterpoint. Jenkins keeps them out.

Moonlight’s devotion to Chiron, however, does not involve turning away from the world. The rise of drugs and the War on Drugs, welfare cuts and Reagan’s concept of the “welfare queen,” gay visibility and the terror of AIDS: all of this is present, just not in the form of representative spokespeople or explicit conversations. The world at that moment is present in the lives that we see rather than as a topic to be discussed. This is what makes the film such an effective exploration of a lived world. As lived, the world is not an object we perceive but that which makes possible whatever we perceive and how. In focusing on Chiron, the world comes in, not directly into the frame, but as the frame of his life. Given the near universal praise of Moonlight, it seems the American public has a keen interest in watching such struggles unfold on screen. There is a danger of insisting on and relishing in visions of black gay life as beautiful but essentially thwarted and unrealizable, as deprived of lasting joy. This film plunges us into one life, one world. But there are other worlds.

Moonlight is less a story than an encounter, and its time is not the time of narrative but of experienced moments. We move from stage to stage, from scene to scene, along patterns and repetition. Time moves in loops and flashes. Scenes seem to insist in steady rhythm: this this this this. As Kevin says to Black, late in the film, when they are again together by the ocean, and the moment is alive with precious possibility: this is a life.


Francey Russell is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. She works on issues in moral philosophy and subjectivity, and how these get worked out in art.

LARB Contributor

Francey Russell is an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College and Columbia University. She works primarily on topics in moral psychology, history of philosophy, and aesthetics.


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