Some people might remember the film “Moonlight” from the infamous mishap at the 2017 Oscars, in which “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as Best Picture instead of “Moonlight.” But if you’re capable of looking past the controversy, you’ll find one of the most impactful and important pieces of art made this century.
“Moonlight,” released in 2016 and directed by Barry Jenkins, explores the life of a Black man named Chiron. The film follows him through different stages of his life, often centering around his struggle to survive amidst a difficult upbringing. Jenkins uses Chiron’s life story as a vehicle to masterfully explore the intersectionality between sexual identity and Black masculinity.
The film uses a unique chapter-based format, opening with a chapter titled “Little,” after Chiron’s childhood nickname. In this chapter, we meet an adult named Juan as he finds Chiron hiding from a group of bullies.
Throughout the film, we see Juan and Chiron develop a close relationship that ends up being key to Chiron’s development. With few trustworthy adults in his life, Juan plays a crucial role in Chiron’s life as a mentor who shows up for him when others don’t.
Juan is not without his issues, however. He sells drugs to make ends meet, leading to him being forced to navigate various morally complex scenarios. In one particularly harrowing scene, Juan discovers that Chiron’s own drug-addicted mother is strung out on the very same drugs he sells.
Shortly after this point, the film skips ahead to Chiron’s teenage years. As a teenager, Chiron no longer goes by “Little” but is still the victim of frequent mockery and taunting by his classmates. He also deals with grief and loss after Juan’s untimely death. Despite hardships, he finds some solace both in Juan’s ex-partner, Teresa and in his childhood friend Kevin.
It’s within Kevin and Chiron’s relationship that we can start to see the emotional core of the film. Kevin is Chiron’s only childhood friend who is willing to learn more about him on an emotionally deep level. Jenkins’ ability to showcase such deep intimacy between two male friends is one of the film’s greatest strengths, and this relationship only grows as the film continues.
The emotional complexity of this relationship is perhaps best seen later in the film as we witness a powerful depiction of intimacy between the two friends. Kevin and Chiron meet at a beach, just the two of them. After having a heartfelt talk about life, the two share a kiss before making love to each other.
We don’t hear from Kevin for some time, as the film skips forward in time again at this point. In the third chapter of the film, we are introduced to Chiron as an adult. Now going by the nickname “Black,” he’s followed in Juan’s footsteps and become a successful drug dealer in Atlanta, Georgia.
Chiron is almost unrecognizable compared to how he used to look—he’s now a grown man with toned muscles, diamond earrings and a durag. In his new life, Chiron is finally respected by his peers and has found a significant amount of financial success. However, whenever the topic of relationships comes up, Chiron seems to be struggling with a deep loneliness.
All the film’s various elements come together when Chiron receives an unexpected phone call from Kevin. Kevin tells him that if Chiron is ever in Miami, they should meet. After carefully considering his offer, Chiron travels to Miami and the two of them reconcile in an absolutely stunning display of storytelling.
In what is perhaps the most touching moment in the entire film, Chiron finally lets his guard down and tells Kevin that he’s the only person he’s been intimate with, even after years have passed:
“You the only man that’s ever touched me. You’re the only one. I haven’t really touched anyone since.”
“Moonlight” thrives on its ability to show touching and authentic human nature by not shying away from exploring all aspects of life. Films like “Moonlight” resonate with so many people because they can see parts of themselves reflected in the deep emotions represented on screen.
More importantly, however, we get the chance to follow a character who exists as a minority in more ways than one. As we follow Chiron through each point of his life, we can also see how deeply human he is as he has to navigate a deeply patriarchal and heteronormative society.
The American writer Joseph Campbell said it best: “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” Getting to a place where you are able to authentically be yourself through persevering against all obstacles and hardships is a privilege.
This is one of the main ideas of the film: Chiron was taunted and bullied by others for “appearing gay” since he was a child. Later in life, he attempted to escape these taunts by becoming a hyper-masculine version of his younger self. His journey perfectly shows the intricacies of exploring sexual identity in a world where being yourself is often reprimanded.
What Jenkins was able to achieve most successfully was communicating the film’s position through the main character. This is not just an LGBTQ+ film, this is a Black LGBTQ+ film. The access that Jenkins provides through his filmmaking choices allows us to gain an understanding of the subtleties of Black masculinity and how it informs Chiron’s sexuality.
No words can truly express exactly how moving this illuminative film is, however. In order to properly understand the intensity of what “Moonlight” conveys, you have to see it for yourself. There are few films that achieve what “Moonlight” does. Some might say that even fewer have been able to achieve the same level of influence.
For example, consider the film’s insanely limited production process. “Moonlight” was shot over the span of 25 days with a budget of only $1.5 million. With so little time to film and a relatively small budget compared to other productions, the amount of care that went into the filmmaking process is even more impressive.
Clearly, we can’t attribute the success of “Moonlight” to a high budget or massive support from big-name filmmakers. What really elevates the film to places most blockbusters can barely dream of is the pure passion and craft on display throughout.
The soul of this film lies in its showcasing of humanity: the struggle and confusion of finding yourself, the fighting back against corrupt systems, how those systems change us, dealing with fear and solitude and so much more.
As time passes,“Moonlight” will hopefully be remembered as a masterpiece that portrays humanity in a deeply intimate way that will leave viewers reflecting on their own lives. Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney have created a breathtaking piece of art that begs the question of what it means to be alive, and it remains well worth the watch.
Jose Acuna Cruz is an English freshman who can be reached at