"Moonlight": A Story Told With Color
Great directors use all of the tools at their disposal to visually express the stories they are telling. With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins combines precise, natural dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and outstanding performances to tell the story of three periods in the life of Chiron, a young boy born into poverty in the drug-riddled Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. The film is a masterwork of feeling and mood, with a universal theme of the struggle to choose your identity in a world that so often attempts to decide for us.
The film is divided into three sections. The first, titled Little, begins when Chiron, nicknamed Little and played by Alex Hibbert, is a young boy of elementary school age that struggles to fit in. Without going too deep into the plot, a chance encounter brings Little into the orbit of Juan (played by Mahershala Ali, who won an Academy Award for the role), a local drug dealer of some stature in the neighborhood. Juan takes Little under his wing and provides the fatherless boy with some much needed mentoring.
At one point, after teaching Little how to swim in the ocean, Juan recounts a story from his youth about an old lady who said to him, “In moonlight, black boys look blue. You Blue. I gonna call you Blue.” It should be noted that Jenkins’s script was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Little asks if that’s his name. Juan says no, and then teaches the boy an important lesson which, I believe, is at the heart of the film. “At some point,” Juan says, “you gotta decide who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Visual Analysis In Little
We actually first meet Juan as he’s making his rounds on the streets, overseeing his business. Here is our first glimpse of him.
A little later, after he meets Little and is driving with him, we see that the car also has a blue interior.
When Juan first finds Little, hiding from bullies in an abandoned room obviously frequented by his customers, he looks like this.
Little wears a white shirt, signifying his innocence, and a blue backpack—implying that perhaps Juan may see a little of himself in the frightened young boy.
Later, at the beach, we see Little looking up at Juan, like a boy looks at a father, with the symbolic blue scattered around in the background.
Jenkins uses another subtle visual move to get his point across. Look at the shirt Juan is wearing when he first meets Little.
It’s a busy, multi-colored pattern that signifies the uncertainty Little feels about whether Juan is a friend or foe. This, we shall see, will come up again later.
At first, Little won’t reveal where he lives so Juan is forced to bring him home to his place where we meet Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe. It is a surprisingly safe and tranquil home; one would never know a drug dealer lives here. Teresa prepares a meal for Little, and the three sit at a dining table like a nuclear family. Look at the walls in Juan’s house.
They are in the process of being painted white. This symbolizes the change that is occurring within Juan. He seems to particularly enjoy having Little in his home. It can be interpreted that he longs to leave the streets behind and begin a family with the stable and kind Teresa.
Little spends the night in their home. The next morning, he finally tells Juan where he lives and Juan takes him home where we meet Paula, Little’s mother, played brilliantly by Naomie Harris. Here is how we first see her.
Multi-colored, patterned shirt. Is she a friend or foe to young Little?
Soon, we learn that Paula, like so many in the neighborhood, has fallen under the influence of drugs and that Juan is her supplier—a fact that is not lost on Little. One night, she comes home high after smoking on the very street where we first met Juan. She and Little look at each other in their apartment.
Notice their shirts; his is lily white whiles Paula's is devil-red.
Near the end of the first section, Little shows up at Juan and Teresa’s house. Notice the walls now.
The paint job is almost complete. The walls are almost totally white. Notice that Juan is now wearing a white shirt.
Little asks Juan if his mother does drugs. Juan says yes. Little then asks if Juan sells drugs. Again, Juan answers yes, with obvious pain in his heart. Little leaves Juan at the table after confirming his suspicions, obviously disappointed.
Here is the last image we, and possibly Little, have of Juan. We learn later that Juan has died. The streets are a dangerous place.
His head is bowed in shame. His emotional journey is complete, hence the almost heavenly white walls and shirt.
In the second section of the film, Little, now played by Ashton Sanders, is in high school and goes by his birth name.
Here is our first glimpse of him.
Notice his shirt; it's patterned and multi-colored with blue & yellow, which I will get into shortly.
Chiron is gay, though not openly. He is the subject of repeated bullying, mainly by his nemesis Terrel.
He wears a solid red shirt, recalling of Paula’s shirt at the end of the first section.
Chiron is afraid of Terrel and his tag along followers, so he doesn’t stand up for himself when Terrel bullies him. Hence the yellow, signifying cowardice, which will accompany Chiron throughout most of the chapter.
After school, Chiron sees Terrel and his crew outside and is afraid to leave.
The fence signifies how trapped he feels inside. As he waits for Terrel to leave, he is approached by Kevin, a friend from his childhood.
Kevin is wearing a solid white shirt, signifying that he is a friend. Also notice the blue window behind them.
After a friendly conversation, Chiron is able to go home.
Chiron grabs the blue striped shirt and slings it over his shoulder. He wants to wear it, to be more like Juan, but he is not ready.
Inside, Paula (clearly high) tells Chiron she has “company” coming over. So, “find somewhere for you to be”.
Though wearing a white shirt, she also wears a multicolored/patterned scarf on her head.
Naturally, Chiron goes to Juan & Teresa’s home. Teresa fixes him a meal like the mother he wished he had.
Yellow tablecloth, yellow bowl. Teresa’s headband is solid white.
It is on this visit that we conclude that Juan is no longer alive but that the relationship with Teresa has continued. Chiron spends the night. Before he goes to sleep he sits on the edge of the bed.
He is still in his yellow shirt and has his head bowed like Juan at the end of chapter one. Is Chiron feeling shame for allowing others to define him as soft, against Juan’s teaching?
That night, Chiron dreams about Kevin having sex outside with a young girl. In the dream, Chiron investigates the sounds they make and comes upon them against a picnic table. He watches them for a moment.
His shirt is actually white but in the moonlight, it appears yellow. Chiron desires Kevin, but cannot summon the courage to do anything about it.
The next day at school, Chiron is still wearing the yellow shirt.
On the way home from school, he has a confrontation with Terrel in the street.
Terrel teases Chiron about his mother’s drug problem and for a moment it seems Chiron might actually stand up to him. In the end, he backs down. The yellow building behind him is symbolic.
That night, lost and alone, Chiron rides the train. Notice all of the yellow.
Chiron winds up at the beach where he meets up with Kevin. They have a real, meaningful conversation and Chiron’s first sexual encounter. Kevin is again, as a friend, dressed in white.
Back home in the morning, Chiron finds Paula passed out on the couch. He covers her with a multi-colored blanket.
She wakes and, seemingly out of the blue, says “You don’t love me no more.” Chiron covering her with the blanket is symbolic of him giving up on Paula ever being a friend to him. Look at all of the clashing patterns as she says “You’re my only.”
At school, Chiron seems to have a little bit of a swagger after the encounter with Kevin. Look at the look on his face and his shirt now.
It’s blue. And it’s not yellow we see behind him, but more blue. Chiron is changing and becoming more like Juan.
He sees Kevin sitting alone at a lunch table. But look at what Kevin is wearing now.
Kevin no longer wears solid white. This time it’s patterned. And look at the red doors behind him. Is there danger lurking here too?
Before Chiron can approach, Terrel sits down with Kevin.
Terrel is now in solid white. He acts like a friend to Kevin as he convinces him to play a game from their youth in which Terrel points out a random person and Kevin has to try to knock him out. Kevin, also fearful of Terrel though better at hiding it, reluctantly agrees. Note the red doors in this shot.
Outside, Terrel of course chooses Chiron as Kevin’s victim. Chiron stands bravely, willing to allow Kevin to hit him and avoid Terrel’s wrath. Kevin lands a few brutal punches, then Terrel and his friends, the true cowards, finish the job. Chiron is left bloody and beaten on the ground.
The principal wants Chiron to name who beat him up but he refuses. She calls him a boy. He responds, “I ain’t no boy.” He makes a decision to stand up for himself.
Chiron returns to school. Notice his shirt and the color around him now.
Kevin sees him and seems to notice a change in attitude. Take note of Kevin’s shirt—it looks like prison garb. This is a bit of foreshadowing because we learn later that both he and Chiron will spend time in jail.
Chiron enters his classroom and finally exacts his revenge on Terrel.
Chiron’s middle emotional journey is completed.
In the final chapter, titled Black, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is an adult and is known as Black, a nickname given to him by Kevin. He has been in and out of prison. With a muscular build and new confidence, he looks likes a completely different person.
Black is asleep and, before we see him, we see that he is having a nightmare about his mother in her red shirt.
He awakes in blackness.
We soon learn that he has followed Juan’s career path as a drug dealer. He has, in effect, become Blue.
Black now drives a black car. He even has a crown on the dash like Juan did.
He wears a black shirt.
Or a black tank top.
Though he is now tough and feared, and has for all intents and purposes become Juan, there may still be a bit of fear (yellow) in him because he is not showing the world who he really is.
One night, Black gets a phone call. He answers in the blackness that he has surrounded himself with.
The caller is Kevin, after at least a decade of not speaking to each other. This is what Kevin is wearing when he calls.
The familiar white of friendship and trust. Kevin invites Black to come see him next time he is in Miami.
Black visits his mother, now living in a rehab facility. She is recovered from her addiction now and is much softer, but she carries a lot of guilt over how she treated young Chiron. Her shirt now is a solid color. Though it is not quite white, it is much safer than the scary red she used to wear.
In a tender moment, Paula apologizes to her son for not being there for him when he needed her. She says, “I f***ed it all up, I know that.” She then tells him that she loves him and that she doesn’t expect him to love her back. But, she says, “Your heart ain’t gotta be black like mine.”
Black then drives to Miami to visit Kevin, who works as a cook in a small diner. Kevin wears white while Black is in his black tee.
But there is danger here—note the red curtains. Black has built a persona of toughness for protection. Being with Kevin again and opening himself up is scary. Lots of red here.
But Black stays the course. He decides, maybe for the first time, to be who he feels like inside.
They go to Kevin’s apartment. Kevin changes into a new shirt.
It’s blue, as if to say they are now the same. The walls around Black are yellow.
He hasn’t been brave enough yet. There is even a black frame around an empty cork board on the wall behind him. The symbolism is clear.
Kevin asks him, “Who is you, man?” Black responds, “I’m me, man. I ain’t trying to be nothing else.” He goes on to say that when he got to Atlanta, he started over. “Built myself from the ground up. What about you?”
Kevin says that he never did anything he actually wanted to do. “It was all I could do to do what folks thought I should be doing. I wasn’t never really myself.” But now he has a son and a job. “A life. I ain’t never had that before.”
Black learns from Kevin that it’s never too late to be who you want to be. This is the heart and theme of the film. He allows himself to be held by Kevin, another man, for the first time since the night on the beach. Chiron is now his true self.
The final shot is of young Little on the beach at night, in the moonlight, looking at the camera—at us. He is challenging us to be our own true selves.
Films are a visual medium. In “Moonlight”, Barry Jenkins is masterful in his use of color to set mood and tone and to tell the story. I can’t wait to see what he does next.