Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 2016)
Within its first six minutes, Moonlight establishes not just character and environment. It also introduces the relationship between them as one of the main themes of the film. The conflict, between who we are and what our environment forces us to be, rules the life of our protagonist: named ‘Little’ in the first section of the film, ‘Chiron’ in the second, ‘Black’ in the last.
Moonlight opens with a car pulling up in a sun-drenched residential neighbourhood. We watch as Juan, a drug dealer, checks in on one of his minions. A typical scene of street ‘business’ unfolds, and it’s only as Juan is departing that Little enters the scene: pursued by bullies, he dashes by - and the style of the film abruptly changes. This opening was a careful choice by Jenkins and his editors (Nat Sanders and Join Mcmillon). To open the film not with Little, but with the tough neighbourhood he struggles with, from the start establishes the power of this environment over the film's characters.
The cinematography in this scene also establishes a contrast between Juan and Little’s place in this world. As Juan saunters over to greet one of his boys, the camera glides along behind him. The cinematography here is fluid, an extended single shot that suggests this is Juan’s natural domain, where he has confidence and effortless authority. As he greets his employee, watches the younger dealer reject a pestering junkie and checks on the supply, the camera spirals around the characters.
This motif, used repeatedly throughout the film, has a double meaning. Firstly, the circling camera symbolises the community, the tight connection between the characters: here between boss, dealer and junkie. Later, it’s the bond between young schoolboys: during a ballgame or when they’re clandestinely comparing their penises. But this circle can also be imprisoning. For Little, his community is a claustrophobic trap; from the first scene persecutes him for being ‘different’. There’s an example of this in the second chapter, when Tyrell, the school bully, is forcing Kevin to hit Chiron. The same rotating camera movement is used again, but aggressively sped up: the two victims are surrounded by jeering youths and the camera inscribes a closed circle around them, trapping them even further.
Returning to the opening: as the gang of boys race past, the scene is abruptly cut. The fluidity is replaced by jerky, handheld camerawork, evoking anxiety and panic as it chases after Little. The cinematography now represents his world: one of fear and persecution. Unlike Juan, he does not belong in this milieu. He spends the rest of the film trying to fit into it, hiding his true (gay) self, aware that someone will always sniff it out and attack him. We watch the boy hide inside an abandoned apartment; the camera focuses on his fearful facial expression, then follows his POV as he fearfully peers outside at his oppressors. It then pulls back into a long shot, isolating Little as he retreats into himself, curling into a foetal ball.
The expressionistic sound design also force us to empathise with Little. Earlier in the scene, the taunts and threats of the bullies (“Catch the faggot nigga! Kick his ass!”) disrupt the relaxed, calmly spoken dialogue between Juan and the dealer. As Little takes refuge in the boarded-up house the volume of the insults grows louder, the sound of the bullies beating on the door almost deafening. The camera again rotates around the character, but this time it is uncomfortably close and oppressive, Little’s face blurred out by the force of his fear.
After the bullies depart, Little wanders around the dilapidated set, holding up a syringe prop to the light (a foreshadowing of his mother’s addiction, and his own profession in the final part of the film). When Juan tears down the boards and ‘rescues’ Little, light floods into the darkened room. Juan has just bust into the prison/refuge Little has been literally and psychologically hiding within, and his offer of food is a lifeline to the bullied and fearful boy.
The dialogue in these opening scenes establish a contrast between Juan and Little. Juan’s speech and posture is relaxed and tentatively caring throughout. He offers to take Little to lunch, but avoids being intrusive or demanding: “I’m going to get something to eat. You’re welcome to join me.” The close-ups of the boy’s face show his wariness and lack of trust, his silence almost palpable. Throughout the film, as Little becomes Chiron, and later Black, his silence is intensifies: he cannot, dare not open up. Another motif is food offered to him by a range of kindly characters. These meals are symbolic: Juan, his girlfriend Teresa, and finally the grown-up Kevin are not only reaching out to the protagonist, using food to open lines of communication, they are offering him physical and emotional sustenance.
In the first minutes, Moonlight clearly establishes that this is not a typical tale of urban depravation, of crime and addiction (though these do feature prominently in the narrative). The mise-en-scene often appears to counter to the events depicted. The opening scene of street dealing may be familiar from TV shows like The Wire, but the setting challenges our expectations of what a ‘hood drama’ should be. The location is not a run-down, graffiti covered inner city with broken windows. Instead, the houses are pastel yellow, the street lined with trees. A later example of how lighting is used to challenge stereotypes is from the ‘Chiron’ chapter: pink neon is used to light Chiron’s mother as she rants at her son, revealing a soft femininity despite her harsh expression. Jenkins and James Laxton, the cinematographer, purposefully did this to add depth and complexity to the characters, so they are revealed as human beings rather than negative stereotypes. Laxton said he was conflicted over every aesthetic decision, knowing his job as cinematographer is “to depict a judgement”. However, what he was trying to achieve was “to get audiences to relinquish that judgement and just be watchful”.
In post-production, Moonlight’s colourist Alex Bickell worked closely with Laxton and Jenkins to capture the very specific light and colour palette of the film’s Miami setting. Despite poverty and crime, Liberty City (where Jenkins and co-screenwriter Tarrell Alvin McCraney both grew up) has an almost Caribbean look, very different to the washed out colours and grittiness of traditional social realist dramas. Though Little/Chiron/Black’s environment is oppressive, forcing him to hide not just his sexuality but also his vulnerability (or any emotion at all), he can also see great beauty in his surroundings. The ocean, the breeze, the eponymous moonlight itself are environmental features that come to symbolise hope and freedom in the narrative.
This very precise and controlled use of colour and lighting has even taken on a political dimension. Jenkins and Laxton have been praised for the unique way they have filmed African-American characters, using light and post-production colourisation to create contrast and capture rich skin tone. Partly, this is to establish location. Jenkins said “The light and heat in Miami is very specific… Perspiration is inherent in every experience. There’s a beauty to the sheen.” The way Laxton lights black skin uses the contrast of shadow from the sun (or, significantly, the moon) and sheen from perspiration to ‘sculpt’ the characters’ faces. This also fits the expressionistic aesthetic of the whole film, where every scene is shown through the filter of the protagonist’s emotions. Obviously, then, for Little/Chiron/Black’s sexuality, the way the men around him are lit reflects the beauty and sexual attraction he feels. To achieve this, Laxton and Jenkins took inspiration from the films of Spike Lee (especially Clockers) and the photography of Henry Roy and Earlie Hudnall Jr.
The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote in 2013 about how for the first hundred years of cinema there has been a covert, “embedded racism” in photography, where the technology (light meters, film stock and even development emulsion) has been “calibrated for white skin”. This assumes the ‘real’ subjects of film narratives and aesthetics will be white. Black characters’ faces are reduced to being ashy or “washed-out, featureless points of contrast within the frame”. Digital filmmaking has removed this ‘in-built bias’ and established a new aesthetic for black beauty that Moonlight (and its Oscar for Best Picture) has further advanced.
In just the opening scene of Moonlight, Jenkins already achieves one of his intentions: “to bring the arthouse to the hood”. By subverting the clichés of ‘ghetto drama’ Jenkins and Laxton are not only offering a unique vision, he is ideologically challenging many stereotypes and assumptions about African-American lives and communities, even the way black characters are lit and shot. The opening scenes of Moonlight use a careful and precise fusion of cinematography, sound and mise-en-scene to establish not just the characters, milieu, and theme, but to also encapsulate genuinely challenging political ideas.
On ‘in-built bias’ in filmmaking technology:
Further Viewing (click on title for video)
The Wire (HBO TV series, creator: David Simon, 2002 - 2008)
Clockers (Spike Lee, 1995)
Boyz N The Hood (John Singleton, 1991)
Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997)
Three Times (Hou Hsaio-hsien, 2006)