Sometimes fictions function to produce memory. And the genius and beauty of Barry Jenkins’s 2016 film Moonlight is not in its being presumably a universal story to which we all can relate. It is in this: that attention to the depth of emotion in the film can prompt in viewers our own search for such histories, such emotions, such possibilities. It can make us remember.
It was as I sat in the dark theater watching Little in the 1980s car, his tiny dark brown head slightly out the window, hand waving in the wind, that I remembered what it was like to ride in the back seat of my parents’ car to Willowbrook Mall almost every Saturday as a kid. The window would be open, the radio playing 1600 WWRL “Spirit 16”—probably a Walter Hawkins song—and my eyes would be closed. Air from the moving car would beat across my eyelids with my sitting too close to the window face at the door. Watching Little, I remembered my closed eyes because the sun’d be shining and I’d see a sorta dark neon-ish red and green where the light would force its way through my skin. Remembering now, it’s like I can almost see the rhythm of the wind dancing across my closed eyes, as if another kind of seeing were made possible by shutting out the world.
Watching Little, I also remembered again, as if for the first time, the dream I have over and over again of a best friend. I always notice myself in the middle of the dream, my getting into my father’s 1980s car after saying goodbye to the other boy, daddy driving away from someone that I’ve perhaps in some other lifetime met, some other spacetime. I’ve never met this kid, this best friend in this life, yet I remember him, remember how driving away from him each time makes me feel, how each time I awake to tears down my face. To remember some experience I haven’t had but that I know, that I sense. That’s what Moonlight made possible for me.
Moonlight tells the story of a young man in three phases of his life and, with each phase, is a name attached. Little, Chiron, Black. In each instance, he attempts to learn about how to live, how to discover for himself a way to endure in a world that is not structured in order to hear him, to sense him as important, as beautiful. It is about his sexuality, sure, but it’s also about how his sexuality is a way into worlds undiscovered, about the way sexuality opens up but also collapses possibilities for being together with others. And black queer folks know something about openings and collapses, and possibilities and retreats for safety. We all remember.
I am not Little. Unlike the narrative in the far too moving for words film Moonlight, my parents were married in the ’80s and neither was a survivor of the crack epidemic. Yet I know Little because I have felt the stillness he attempted by closing out the world by opening his eyes. Like his being called Little in the first act, I had a name that an uncle called me and the fictional Moonlight caused me to remember again.
Berry is my mother’s maiden name and I look so much like her that Uncle James decided to call me, from a very young age, Berry Berry. Berry Berry was also the enunciation of a hoped for enduring of a parent-child relationship. The complications of queer desire for me weren’t supposed to be in the cards dealt. Berry Berry was a nickname, not unlike Little, that announced familiarity, closeness, intimacy. Nicknames offer clues into what people are at different stages of their lives. To tell the story of being a boy through the prism of nicknames and fear of being seen too much or too little, that’s what Moonlight attempts.
Viewers are introduced to Little on the run. In the sequence in which he first appears, he is running away. We only hear Little’s breath, the way breathing is both a sign of life and intimating the kind of terror he endures. Curiously, in the first act of Moonlight, the audience is witness to the way the home space for Little is empty of his voice. Though he is given commands, told what to do, though he makes himself a bath and cleans himself, though he interacts with his mother, we never hear him speak to his mother Paula. Perhaps it’s better to say that she never listens to him, never hears for his voice. And in that silence is a world of trouble because that silence is augmented by his eyes, by the way he looks at her, the way he looks out into the world.
Little, at a very young age, was trying to understand something about why the world treated him so badly. In the silence within what is supposed to be the resting place of a home, viewers get a clue into the inner turmoil and terror he experiences. Chased by school kids, called faggot and fag, rocks and shoes thrown at him, I remembered me, my life. His fiction opened to me a way to think about myself. The same years I was called Berry Berry were the years I was so afraid of singing in church or letting my wrist dangle a bit too much because I did not want to be thought a faggot, a fag, I did not want rocks and shoes thrown at me.
I was called Berry Berry around the time my parents began to tell me that I no longer seemed happy. And I suspect it had something to do with the sadness in my eyes. I could not articulate what I was feeling. Difference from others was certainly one thing I detected. But I also felt desire for boys whose names I still know. At that time, difference and the objects of my desire hadn’t cohered to be one and the same problem to be overcome.
I was called Berry Berry around the same years that there was the teacher that told me—by announcing to the entire class—that I have a lot of “feminine ways” about me and that I should be concerned because people would think I’m a “fag.” Not many years later, some other teacher told me that I needed to sing like I have balls because I sang “like a girl.” I wanted to spin, like Little, to dance myself free because the world was telling me something about myself I did not yet understand. So I tried to delimit my gestures and voice, to control them. And in such a situation, the eyes came to stand in for vibrational possibility that was otherwise stilled, otherwise stolen. In my case, echoed and remembered because of Little’s case, the eyes had to become world absorbing, had to do synaesthetic work.
What’s a faggot, Little asks, then, Am I a faggot?
The timing and pace of the scene, the gentleness with which Juan and Teresa handled him, loved him but were not paternalistic nor infantilizing. It was a moment of gentle stillness and seriousness. And it’s in the way his eyes opened to them, opened to hear and feel and sense their responses that was so moving.
We always are on a search for definition, for a way to announce ourselves to the world that gives us the chance of being otherwise, for re-narration, for possibility heretofore unrealized. And it was in undergrad at University of Pennsylvania that I accepted a name from a then new friend that I’d never been called before in order to become someone different, someone unsullied by a past replete with being called, and escaping such being called, faggot, sissy, funny. It’s funny. My first week in Philly, I told people my name was Thomas, that they could call me Tommy. I even chose an email address—[email protected]—to announce the importance of this new first name. So I was already on the search for something different.
Instead, because of the new friend, I became Cookie and it stuck. Cookie was the way I was going to be free, that I was going to figure out a way to stand up for myself. I could be the church boy, the choir director boy, the church musician boy, the preacher boy but disconnected from all that came before. Cookie was an announcement that I was different. It was another name, a way for fictioning, which is to say fixing, things I thought were wrong.
Fictioning things, like names, can sometimes be an occasion for stretching within and against one’s skin what seem like the limits of the allowable. New name, new life, new histories. But sometimes, fictioning names can become a compression. Less air, less breath. Discontent with every utterance. In either direction is the hope for starting anew. But each occasions tears, weeping, sadness.
Chiron was the second act of Moonlight and in it we get a deeper clue into who this character was, would be. If it were not apparent in the first act, in the second, we were shown the movement of his eyes, of the way they danced and played with and against the world. It’s like what Amiri Baraka described of James Baldwin through eulogy, Baldwin’s world absorbing eyes. This is what Moonlight so precisely captures, so we can think of this film as in the tradition of Baldwin, how Baldwin also thinks about race and class and desire in such sparse and taut and hallucinating and gentle ways.
It’s all about the eyes, about a Baldwinian cinematic, a vibrational affinity that does not privilege seeing but uses sense experience as an opening up into the unfolding of possibility. It’s all about the eyes, how each of the character phases—Little, Chiron, Black—look out into the world and with such looking, hear and feel and taste and smell it, how that looking is a synaesthetic experience. World absorbing eyes both take in more than what is thought their capacity while also outpouring waters. Chiron cries about so much, remember he tells Kevin. His eyes, his black queer eyes, inhale and exhale, continually in the process of reciprocity.
There was a stillness that was both internal to the film and a way to keep the audience from voyeurism while still allowing viewers a way in. We still do not know much about the characters though we see their developments. We only understand Paula and her drug addiction through how Little, then Chiron, then Black, experienced her. We get something like what poet Nathaniel Mackey calls a laminated shout.
There are screams in the film—like Paula to Little—but we do not initially hear the content. There are conversations that take place over Chiron’s head—the school principal telling him to press charges—but we are not privy to such dialogue because he is in his own world, otherwise and everywhere away from the space that treated him so terribly. He wants something, desires something, and struggles to make sense of such want. The dance and play and hesitancy in his eyes portray this. In the dance and play and hesitance of his eyes are the sobs and pleas and screams of a broken heart. The eyes conceal, and also reveal, the sound of desire.
He wanted what Kevin always offered, a way to endure, a way to be together, a way to abide, a way to love that was not predicated on sense and rationality. There was an intimacy that was inexhaustible, that was unquenchable, that was impossible to dissipate, though the search for and experience of it was urgent and intense. We felt it as Chiron gripped the sand at his ejaculatory release on the beach with Kevin. What could have been registered as just primal and carnal was transformed into a moment of intense emotion, elation. And it was because of the gentleness with which Kevin held Chiron’s head, the way he told Chiron he didn’t need to apologize and the way their eyes lingered while shaking hands before Chiron walked into the house. That touch did so much, inspired so much, caused so much joy. Moonlight displaces the well-worn stereotype of the supposed bestial nature of black men without ever degrading sex. It privileged intimacy without subordinating cum.
Cookie was also on a search for his Kevin, for a way to find joy in the most mundane of experiences and pleasures. Sitting on a beach, head in hand, breathing. But my barrier was a bit different than Chiron’s, mine was religiosity, how churches preached against the sins of homosexuality, how faggots and bulldaggers were narrated as in need of salvation. Moonlight allowed me to remember the late nights wishing, wanting, for reprieve, for a way to live a life, to absorb all with eyes that could tell what I dared, at least at that time, attempt to speak. It let me remember the deep sadness and melancholy of trying to be, trying to exist, for the whims and wishes of others, the ways I tried to live my life for a Jesus I was beginning to detect didn’t exist in the ways the Blackpentecostal churches I attended kept telling me. And it’s because, I remember now, I kept running into Littles, Chirons, Blacks in those churches that deemed us impossible.
Moonlight side steps the new black masculinity by never posing the question of if Chiron and Kevin are “man enough.” Little’s/Chiron’s queer horizons are never blamed on the absence of masculinist presence, which also curiously rescues Paula from becoming a stereotype of denigrated black maternity. Everyone is complex even in their simple narration. Contemporarily, there is a lot of energy being expended for men to prove their progressive politics by discussing allowable levels of emotional display and, for straight men, by their proximity to and seeming comfort with gay men. Messaging these days seems to assert the idea that men can express themselves emotionally but it won’t disrupt our occupying the conceptual domain and field of “manhood” that is always and everywhere about maintaining a patriarchal ordering of the world. Moonlight doesn’t use the concept of the “still be a man,” of normative manhood, as the way to resolve and make palatable black male intimacies. And this is a gift.
Moonlight is not, nor does it need to be, a universal story about what we have all experienced. We do not need to experience life as Little/Chiron/Black in order to cherish it because in such a case, we are only ever on a search for our literal selves, in our individuality, rather than the narrative flowering on screen. This film resists universalizing impulses by rendering things impossible on varied sense registers, with the ways the audio is at times severed from while still giving access to the visual. In such a moment of jarred sensuality, we are refused certain entry, making real the fact that we are viewers with delimitation, viewers with contingent access. It doesn’t need to be everybody’s protest film but in such uniqueness can open up the imagination towards considering the possibilities of alternatives to what is given to be the ethical, the good, the normal. And it’s because the eyes, as world absorbing, take in and sense beyond horizons. Little/Chiron/Black needn’t be every man for every man’s memory to be incited to remembrance.
The hesitant smile that crept up on Black at the realization that Kevin was on the other end of the phone collapsed spacetime. Ten years ago became yesterday and the intensity, the flood of emotion, rushed back. It is this intimacy that promises to destabilize notions of masculinity. And on message boards and other social media forums, the claim that Moonlight attempts emasculation of black men is a charge. But why is black male intimacy, when not mediated by a woman, such a cause for concern, why is it such a force of destabilization? Why is life ordered such that the idea of intimacy, not fucking, is the cause for true lament? Can love happen between when not grounded in consummation but sheer endurance, can it collapse spacetime such that the sound and music makes ten years feel like only a day? Chiron/Black and Kevin model a non-coercive, mutual form of relationality that exists beyond the domain of what is thought possible.
I appreciate that the film didn’t linger over the question about the boy that antagonized Chiron in high school, that it didn’t ever seem to question, thus not attempt to resolve, the idea that what he was fighting in Chiron was what he was repressing in himself. Because in the most fundamental ways, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how he terrorized Chiron, not the psychology that produces such an encounter because it would then displace the urgency of intense feeling we are made to experience through Chiron’s bashful eyes. He could’ve been a closeted dude or simply an asshole. Leaving this to be determined means that it is not the point of Chiron and his developments. We are supposed to sit with the discomfort Chiron lives through without psychologizing, and thus pathologizing and making an apology for, the terribleness Chiron was to endure.
To be between fiction and fixing is, on the one hand, to make believe, and on the other hand, to hope to mend. It is to be between imagination and desired repair, between the emergence of a song and the alchemizing of the normative terms of order. It is to be between hallucination and diagnosis. Little/Chiron/Black represented a series of experiences that were not about becoming the right kind of man, the best way to produce masculine tears. It was not about widening the concept of the man that does not interrogate the idea of manhood itself, it wasn’t about becoming normal or acceptable and included within ideas that are fraught and a problem. It was about exploding belief, exploding expectation to create something otherwise. Using the familiar in order to trouble the terms of acceptability and the ways we’ve come to order our worlds.
And it’s because the film ends, abruptly, with Black’s head in Kevin’s arm, Black’s head on Kevin’s shoulder. Not only paralleling the beach scene but also leaving as an open question, what happens next? “Who is you, man?”, Kevin keeps questioning Black and that question is for us all. From Berry Berry to Cookie to Ashon, what remains to be elaborated on is the infinite possibility of heretofore unrealized potential, the soon to come that has not yet been determined. Moonlight, thankfully, let me remember. What did it let you remember?
Ashon Crawley is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist, and Queer theories. His first book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise.