Geography as Identity: On Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

Moonlight (2016) | artwork by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

I. Out of the Past

When I close my eyes I still dream of my childhood home in Miami.

Our small home was nestled in the lower-middle-class, predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of Richmond Heights. Even when we left it briefly—before my brother was born in 1991, and for over a year during my time in middle school—we always seemed to return to it as if it were a magnet pulling us back.

I remember the feel of the rippling paint in the den under my fingerprints. I remember the odd mantras I wrote on the small white TV I kept in my room in which I would tape episodes of Buffy the Vampire SlayerStar Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Charmed. I replayed these shows over and over as a way to transport myself from the world just beyond my door as my family fell into poverty thanks to a series of bad decisions my mother made with such regularity I thought selfishness and myopia was programmed into her DNA. There, on the tile floor in the corner of the second bathroom, I had one of my most violent episodes. And over there, nestled in the kitchen near the back door, I can still see my grandmother wearing a warm smile and frying plantains, the smell filling the small one-story home. I can outline with remarkable precision the sloppy spackle that hides the remains of where my father ripped out a telephone from the kitchen wall to beat my mother. I can remember all of us—my mother, younger brother, and grandmother—huddled around the dining room table eating oxtails with gravy, crawfish etouffee, poundcake with a rum glaze. Sometimes my brother and I could be found swiping mangoes from an unsuspecting neighbor’s tree. The memories that come to mind most hold little comfort—my father’s violence, my mother’s growing religiosity in the face of my mental instability, the times before and right after my extended trips to the mental hospital as a teen. This was the same home my mother grew up in after her mother and father left her birthplace of New Orleans. Like my mother, I was raised between Miami and Southern Louisiana, where I would spend time in the home my great-grandfather built over a century ago. But it is Miami I never return to, and whose events I have fought to forget.

Being separated from this place by a decade and 1400 miles means I never have to reckon with the scars Miami left in its wake. Since living in Chicago I have been able to remake myself. I’ve grown far bolder, hold my head higher, move with a fierce grace. All while vehemently ignoring that my venomous humor, culinary skills, and the musicality with which I speak has roots there. Never having to see the Miami I grew up with in pop culture means never having to face the young girl I once was: a girl who was so afraid of the world around her she couldn’t look people in the eye, often keeping her gaze trained to the ground when walking. It’s so hard for me to speak of this chapter in my life I slip into third person, another way to pretend that girl wasn’t really me. I spent a lot of time then trying to become invisible. If no one sees you, no one can hurt you. Then I saw Moonlight.

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an intimate triptych following Chiron, a black kid from one of Miami’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods, Liberty City. The film is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who, like Jenkins, is from Miami), and Jenkins both wrote and directed it. It’s a film more interested in emotion and mood than plot, detailing Chiron’s struggles to find personal connections and come to terms with being gay in a starkly homophobic milieu. Chiron is a walking nerve whom his crack-addicted mother, Paula (a vociferous Naomie Harris), and peers know exactly where to wound. He’s not just teased and bullied—his very identity is ridiculed. As a young child referred to as “Little,” Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is quiet and solemn. As a teenager, Chiron (now played with elegant sorrow by Ashton Sanders) has curled even further into himself. He walks through the world as if trying to disappear. His masculinity is under attack throughout the first two chapters of Moonlight, as the way he dresses and moves through the world makes him an easy target. When we meet him as an adult in the third section, now played with alluring bravado by Trevante Rhodes, he’s a completely different man thanks to a stint in juvie years earlier and a move to Atlanta. I wasn’t surprised to see Chiron bulked up. His now impressive physicality marks how he’s hardened to the world. By presenting a body that is hyper-masculine, he is able to shield himself from the questions and belittlement that marked his youth. It’s a tactic many black people who find no home in their own communities learn to adopt—harden yourself to the world so people are too afraid to look closely and notice the profound yearnings bubbling underneath the surface. Moonlight is a tale exploring a version of blackness and identity specific to Miami. It’s a film that takes an unflinching look at the loneliness and isolation that comes with finding no home amongst people who look like you.

The first time I saw Moonlight, I stumbled from the theater in a haze until I broke down crying. Memories I had yet to reckon with from my time growing up in Miami had burst through every barrier I created for myself. Between sobs I said, “I saw myself up there,” to the friend who had accompanied me. It’s the only way I could put into words the emotional experience of watching the film.

Choosing to write about this film is akin to picking at a wound you thought had healed only to realize you’ve been leaving a trail of a blood behind you all these years. How can I put into words what it’s like to see your very soul—ragged and yearning—across the screen? How can I let you know the supreme beauty, cultural variety, and harrowing grotesquerie of Miami if you’ve never experienced it? How can I explain the way a film can be so spiritually and emotionally and intellectually moving that it forces me to recognize the heartbreaking reality of my own loneliness?

Moonlight touches a raw nerve, underscoring how where we’re from and where we live are just as important as the choices we make when it comes to identity. The architecture of our homes, favorite dives, and cities come to shape us in ways we’re not always aware of. And we, in turn, shape these places back. Our emotions have a way of manifesting on the physical plane. We carve our names into trees. Avoid whole city blocks due to the old lovers they remind us of. Mark our growing heights on the sides of door frames in childhood bedrooms. Punch walls out of anger, leaving the impressions of our emotions long after we leave. Barry Jenkins understands the significance of this. Moonlight illuminates a truth I learned a long time ago: geography is identity.

II. Mirror, Mirror

Author Junot Díaz once said, “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror.  And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways.”

Never seeing images of yourself on screen often feels like a subtle act of violence. If film is our most profound empathy machine, as Roger Ebert once said, then the lack of black people at the center of narratives is another way this country demonstrates its inability to see the humanity and complexity in the black experience.

Recently, of course, film and television have been bursting with a myriad of examples of blackness, the best of which are helmed behind the scenes by black creators. Donald Glover’s Atlanta is a surreal and brilliant take on life in the South among the young and the working poor. Issa Rae’s Insecure mines the late-twenties experience of its L.A.-based leads for vulgar humor and heartbreak. The restoration of Daughters of the Dust brought the work of Julie Dash to a new generation. Beyoncé crafted a boundary-breaking ode to the resilience and fury of black Southern women in the genius Lemonade. Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar also uses the Louisiana landscape to create a story about three siblings that feels like the spiritual heir of Douglas Sirk’s rich, complex 1950s melodramas. Yet it’s only the last two I feel kinship with in how they approach blackness, given the ways they echo the culture I’ve inherited from my Creole mother. The past year has felt like such a remarkable step forward for representation on-screen that some critics are wondering if #OscarsSoWhite is necessary anymore, as if one year could undo nearly a century of cinematic neglect and ignorance. But the rush to mark the past year as a permanent turning of the tide ignores how limited black identity still is on screen, and how often these lauded new works lack intersectionality.

What we’re seeing this year primarily takes place in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. For the most part, pop culture is obsessed with blackness that exists in two modes: those who are aspirational and upwardly mobile and those whose lives are defined by struggling. The concerns I see onscreen are worlds away from my own. The black diaspora is diverse and culturally varied in ways pop culture (and the critics who, in turn, shape it) aren’t always aware of. This is partially why Moonlight, Lemonade, and Queen Sugar have been such profound experiences for me. Each work echoed aspects of my experience in ways pop culture has never authentically shown. Watching Lemonade and Queen Sugar brought to mind eating boudin in New Orleans or listening to the stories from the women of my maternal family who learned to hide their pain behind Southern niceties. In these works, black people, particularly black women, find communion and belonging with each other, an experience I have been trying to find and hold onto my whole life. But Moonlight illuminates something we don’t usually see in black narratives—being “the other” in your own community.

To grow up as an Afro-Latina (particularly one whose parents are from such starkly different backgrounds) is to learn what it means to exist between two worlds and find no home in either. To be Afro-Latina is to watch your identity be erased and questioned with alarming regularity. It was only a few months ago when a good friend’s girlfriend told me that she didn’t think I looked Dominican and would never have thought of me as such until I mentioned my father being from Santo Domingo.

In his book Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, historian Marvin Dunn wrote, “There are many shades of black in Miami.” But you wouldn’t know that in the Miami we see on screen—a garish, neon-lit paradise full of taut bodies slinging back mojitos. Miami’s role in Moonlight reveals a rhythm of the city that is missing in other works like the flirtatious Out of Sight, glossy Miami Vice, and archly hypermasculine Scarface. These depictions often play on the idea of Miami as a seaside heaven with all the hedonistic pleasures of hell. I was not at all surprised to learn that director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney were both natives of the city. Moonlight may be but a snapshot of Miami, but it is a snapshot that is packed with little details and flourishes—from its color scheme to Chiron’s relationship with the ocean—that speak to a great understanding of the city.

Various scenes touch on the complicated forms of segregation that exist in Miami. I think especially, perhaps, of the adult Chiron returning to the city to visit Kevin (André Holland), whom he shared his only sexual experience with. Yes, people of every race and culture intermingle in Miami in ways that I have not experienced elsewhere (in Chicago, racial segregation is built into the city’s very identity). But anti-blackness is everywhere—which Juan, an Afro-Cuban drug dealer played with equal parts brio and vulnerability by an astounding Mahershala Ali, hints at. Juan becomes a surrogate father to Chiron in the first chapter. He also (inadvertently) sells crack to Chiron’s mother, yet provides a loving home that acts as temporary respite for the kid when he needs somewhere to run to.

One of the film’s most gorgeous moments is when Juan tells Chiron about his own upbringing before teaching him how to swim. “There are black people everywhere,” Juan tells Chiron. “I’m from Cuba. Lotta black folks in Cuba but you wouldn’t know it from being here.” Even after we learn of Juan’s death in the second chapter of the film, his memory lingers, particularly in the ongoing relationship Chiron has with Juan’s widow, Teresa (a splendid Janelle Monáe), and in the shades of black that pass across the screen.

Ali tearfully spoke about his affinity for Juan at the Toronto International Film Festival. “From the moment he really connects to Chiron, he sees a little piece of himself. I think he understood this young man is a bit of an island. Because Juan is […] a dark-skinned Cuban […] he identified with black culture and tried to assimilate in a certain way, but he’s not African-American. So you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t fit in. So his otherness that he recognizes early on…I think he sees and recognizes very early on this young man needs help,” Ali said. Both Chiron and Juan understand the isolation that comes when you fail to fit into the larger black community—Juan because of his heritage and Chiron because of his sexuality. That Chiron adopts the ways Juan tried to assimilate is not surprising. When we see Chiron in the last chapter of the film, he wears gold grills and diamond studs, walks with a practiced confidence, is incredibly muscular, sells drugs, and has just enough of an edge of aggression for others to vaguely afraid of him—all mannerisms taken straight from Juan. Even the nickname he carries (Black) echoes the one Juan mentions he was given by an older woman in Cuba (Blue).

Moonlight reveals the fault lines in black identity that other shows and films bypass. Works like Queen Sugar, Lemonade, and Hidden Figures are about the ways black people come together and survive by community support. Moonlight explores the far tougher situation of what it means for those of us for whom that unity feels like an impossibility or, at best, a fleeting opportunity.

III. Amongst the Shadows

One of the best ways to judge the success of a cinematic work’s understanding of black identity is by looking at how the actors are shot. I began to formulate this theory while watching Luke Cage, Marvel’s first work with a non-white lead since its cinematic universe kicked off nearly a decade ago with Iron Man. The failure of the series to honestly and accurately reckon with black struggle—exemplified by the titular character, a bulletproof black man trying to clean up the streets of Harlem from criminals—can be seen in the respectability politics and poor plotting that mark the writing. But it is most starkly apparent in how black actors are shot. They are underlit or washed out. The series shows none of the nuance and beauty and diversity in black skin tones that the remarkable cast (including Mahershala Ali) deserve. There is much to praise about the cinematic dexterity and artistry of this film, so I will try to keep it brief.

With Moonlight, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton triumphantly show the complexity of black skin tones. The final shot of Chiron as a young child standing before the ocean, bathed in the blue of the moonlight, is devastating in its beauty. But the strength of the film’s lush visual landscape extends beyond the skill with which the actors are shot. “Miami is absolutely gorgeous—a rough place overflowing with beauty,” Jenkins told the Village Voice. When I think of Miami I think of its beauty like the sharp edge of a blade—it wounds as much as it entrances. When I think of the beauty of my neighborhood with its lush greenery—houses painted colors like robin’s egg blue, seafoam green, and the delicate pink of the underside of a seashell—the horrors of what happens inside these homes soon follows: violence, broken families, people wrecked by addiction. Despite certain critics trying to pass this film off as universal (and thus safe for the white establishment to champion) it’s unapologetically specific—from the soundscapes to seeing Kevin serve Chiron a plate of pollo a la plancha when they reconnect.

The sound design submerges us deeply in Chiron’s mindset. Voices fade in and out of focus, ocean waves haunt pivotal moments. It’s almost as if we’re not watching a clever assortment of facts, but the memories of a man undone by loneliness. In the second chapter, just after being beaten by a peer-pressured Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron sits before the school’s principal. His eyes look over everything else but her. Eventually her voice fades away until it’s background noise, a stark reminder of how pain can warp us in our most desperate moments.

Every performance in Moonlight is remarkably rendered—layered representations of the joy and pain that come with black identity in Miami. These actors communicate with such specificity it left me reeling—like the ways they say “nigga.” In Moonlight, “nigga” is a curse, a kiss, or a mark of an affection depending on who is saying it. Mahershala Ali is as triumphant, as his impressive tally of awards suggests. He leaves an indelible mark on the film despite his brief appearance. Trevante Rhodes is adept at communicating the uneasy mix of desire and fear that comes with facing lost loves. Naomie Harris is raw and unnerving, a powerful emblem of the destructive quality of addiction who refuses to fall into histrionic caricature. But the actor whose gaze got under my skin was Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron in the film’s second act.

My favorite moment from Sanders’ performance is a brief shot of him at school staring straight ahead after being threatened yet again by Terrel (Patrick Decile). A swarm of students bypass him as he stands afraid at the center of the frame. Actors often look directly at the camera (or just about) in Moonlight, but this moment is the most wrenching example for it communicates in less than a minute the profound nature of Chiron’s isolation. Sanders is one of the most stunning examples of the ways loneliness can destroy us I think I’ve ever seen on film. He apologizes for his presence with his physicality, his body hunched over like a walking question mark. Sometimes he would turn his head and I’d see the wiry profile of my estranged brother. Other times, in his efforts to remain unseen by his peers, I’d see myself in ways that I’m still left pondering.

IV. Children of the Sea

Geography is identity. One of the most profound ways this argument surfaces in Moonlight is in Chiron’s relationship to the ocean.

Everyone I know from Miami relates to the ocean differently. Fear. Joy. Awe. For many of us, myself included, it isn’t just a physical thing but a spiritual entity that has been privy to our most vulnerable moments. In the ocean, no matter how powerful you are on land, you can come undone. In Miami, beauty and danger often exist hand-in-hand—and the ocean itself is the greatest symbol of that tension. Each chapter of Chiron’s life is marked by a pivotal moment in which the ocean itself acts as a witness. Juan’s swimming lessons are framed as baptismal. The camera bobs in and out of the water as Juan joyously acts as Chiron’s teacher. Chiron is at first afraid, then able to enjoy the experience. This scene acts, going forward, as a reminder to Chiron of the ways connection is fleeting but vital for survival. As a teenager, Chiron experiences his first and only sexual experience with Kevin sitting by the ocean one night. And as an adult, after leaving his new Atlanta home thanks to a surprise call from Kevin, he once again has a powerful experience by the ocean.

After returning to his place, Chiron only comes undone—blooming before us—when he’s under Kevin’s eyes. “Who is you?” Kevin asks. The answer can be found in Chiron’s physicality—his yearning gaze, the way he shuffles in the corner of Kevin’s home. When Chiron admits that the last experience of intimacy he had was with Kevin as a teenager, he isn’t so much outlining an experience as asking a question. We see the answer later when Kevin holds Chiron in the hushed light of his bedroom, the crashing waves of the ocean nearby filling the room. Kevin, like Juan before him, sees Chiron for who he truly is and loves him for it. In his own way, Kevin is more a home for Chiron than where he lives in Atlanta. Like all homes, real or imagined, Kevin has a magnetic pull.

People can be that way sometimes: holding the best of us. It’s an intimacy I have never been able to find in Miami or anywhere else. But here, the ocean’s crashing waves are a mark of how such desires can pull us under and are too difficult to ignore. The ocean in Moonlight is at once beautiful and terrifying, something I came to learn in my childhood.

Last year, I saw my childhood home for the first time since my mother lost it to foreclosure years ago. The new tenants have turned what was once the den where I played with my brother and did homework into a carport. It’s painted a mustard color. But when I close my eyes it’s exactly how it was in my youth. I can feel cool tile beneath my feet. I can hear my grandma frying fish in the kitchen and a Phyllis Hyman record playing. Sometimes I’m a child cowering underneath the bed, hiding from my father’s violence. Or I’m tumbling in cartwheels on the grass of my front lawn until I’m out of breath and dizzy, unsure what shape the world should be in. Other times I’m a teenager too caught in the throes of my bipolar disorder to notice the other ways my family was falling apart around me. Or I’m embarrassed to invite friends over, knowing my home was never as lovely as theirs. I can still chart every crack in the wall, every mistake I’ve made in every room. Sometimes, in nightmares, water comes rushing into the home as a hurricane rages outside, and I fail to protect my brother from the flood that takes us both under. Watching Moonlight, I am reminded of how every time I close my eyes I dream of Miami. In turn, I am reminded of the little girl I once was and have yet to reckon with still being.