The Oscar-winning film Moonlight gives an impression throughout of being tinged with the color blue. Already in the beginning, after a blue car, its blue interior, white T-shirt and pillow tinted blue by morning light, blue sneaker soles, and blue plastic trash cans at the beach, comes an extraordinary scene of a black man holding a black boy’s body on top of the ocean, the camera lowered until it is fractionally submerged, enclosing the baptism by swimming lesson in pale sky and rolling water.
“So your name is Blue?” the boy, Little, asks after he has learned that he can be free in the waves. “Naw,” Juan, his savior, answers. He has told the troubled boy that black people are everywhere, that we were the first people on this planet. He is from Cuba, where there are also black people, though you wouldn’t know it—to look at the Cubans in Miami, he means. Juan tells Little that he used to be a wild little shorty like him, running around with no shoes when the moon was out. An old woman saw him “cutting a fool”—it’s not always possible to get what he’s saying—and told him that in the moonlight “black boys look blue.”
Moonlight is a love story in a place where we don’t usually find a gay one and at the same time it’s very different from other black films set in the ’hood, mostly because of what it doesn’t focus on. We don’t hear gunfire and there is no pounding soundtrack, just as it has no bohemian artists or middle-class triumphalism about family. It’s about a homo thug from that street world of the fatherless where masculine pride is supposedly all and tests of manhood are brutal. But Moonlight isn’t trying to be realistic about anything, even as it confounds what we expect from stories about young black men, starting with the film’s texture, its intricate soundtrack, tantric pace, and beauty frame by frame.
An elliptical growing-up-lonely story, the film concentrates on three stages in a gay man’s life—the chapter titles say, “i. Little,” “ii. Chiron,” “iii. Black”—each episode separated by a decade or so. The film begins maybe in the early 1990s, when “Little” is a bullied, neglected schoolboy. Juan, a drug boss, rescues him from a boarded-up apartment in a block of “dope holes.” A solitary kid tormented between school and a home where he is not wanted is drawn to a protective stranger. But even as a refuge from Little’s crack-addicted mother, the nobility of surrogate fatherhood doesn’t overcome what could be called modern puritanical society’s disquiet at the homoerotic scene of a dark-skinned black man cradling his miniature in the vast blue.
In Jenkins’s film, the homoerotic moves the story, including the quickly established bond between the…
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