Please note: this article contains spoilers.
"Who is you Chiron?" This question, both simultaneously remarkably direct and effortlessly vague comes in Moonlight's final major scene, and after spending two hours with Chiron through three stages of his life, it feels as rhetorical to the audience as to Chiron himself. It is a thousand questions, distilled into one. For Chiron, as for us, it is an invitation to think rather than a demand to know. And when we hear it, asked by an intimate soul-mate long estranged, we can't help but feel the power of such a question of identity that none of us can truthfully, factually answer.
Identity is a crucial aspect of Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's unproduced play 'In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue'. Transcending race, sexual orientation or class (though these are all important factors in Chiron's story), Identity concerns all of us, which is what makes this unresolved coming-of-age tale so affecting. Chiron struggles to reconcile competing aspects of his identity - he's black, poor and most likely gay – and avoid the stereotypical image of masculinity that his adolescent experiences willed him to become.
In Chiron's defence, the game is rigged. He never really stood a chance growing up in the impoverished Liberty City projects. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a struggling drug addict and the only father figures around are drug dealers who control the neighbourhood. For Chiron, things are further complicated as he slowly realises that his sexual self is not the normalised one society expects. He finds himself in an environment where anything other than fervent heterosexuality is looked down upon.
Original playwright McCraney and Moonlight director Jenkins both grew up in the same Liberty City project and both found ways out of poverty without turning to a life of crime. McCraney realised young that theatre was his calling and he acquired a scholarship to study playwriting at Yale University. Relentlessly bullied as a child, McCraney found protection in father figure local and drug kingpin, Blue. In Moonlight, this role is played by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who finds a young Chiron cowering from bullies at the beginning of the film and diverts expectations by being kind and caring, despite his "profession". When Juan gets called into question for his dual nature of father/drug dealer, he doesn't have a justifiable answer, struggling to define himself too. Jenkins was handed McCraney's play from Miami film collective The Borscht Corporation (http://borsc.ht/) and connected with it immediately, despite not being gay himself. As both director and writer had drug-addicted mothers they were able to approach the subject honestly and realistically. In the film, despite Paula's negligence due to her addiction, she still clearly deeply cares about "her only" Chiron.
Jenkins has cited world cinema influences including Claire Denis and Hou Hsaio-hsien and Moonlight also takes a clear influence from John Singleton's Boyz 'n' the Hood. Some 25 years later, Moonlight shows a picture where not much has changed from Singleton's early 90's Los Angeles. David Simon's HBO TV show 'The Wire', another reference point, portrayed a similarly impoverished Baltimore housing project in which local vigilante, Omar Little, was also gay. While it is a pointed aspect of the character, Little is a well-established figure of the show, confident in his abilities and identity. Chiron, by contrast, is less so. He is inescapably shaped by his environment, but fails to fully grasp the effect it has on him because he is different. Even in the final act where adult Chiron/"Black" (Trevante Rhodes) projects a self-image akin to an Omar Little, we quickly see he is still the fragile, nervous child we have been watching through the previous two acts hiding underneath the mask.
Jenkins has described the film as "a collection of memories" and "a fever dream" which he was able to shape into a piece of cinema from McCraney's play. For instance, the shocking pink of young Chiron's mother's room constantly haunts him due to the association with his mother's drug and sexual abuse with other male addicts. However, the most important image in the film is water. In all three acts, an important moment in Chiron's life happens at the Biscayne Bay: Juan teaches Chiron to swim while effectively baptising him with the knowledge that he must "make his own path" to find his identity; teenage Chiron's first sexual experience with his friend Kevin happens at the very same moonlit beach on a chance encounter, and finally adult Chiron dreams about driving his expensive car into the bay before meeting Kevin for the first time in years and later returns there after their meeting. The final shot of the film compounds these moments together into one as Chiron stands in the ocean, unable to define himself, caught between the moonlight and the ebbing tide.