Film reviews of Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) praise its treatment of identity, but the title suggests the film is more precisely about subjectivation, that is, the social, material, and affective forces that shape the sense, limits, and horizons of “selfhood”.
Consider first the film’s most iconic and most exceptional scene in which Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Little (Alex R. Hibbert) how to swim in the ocean. Though it is shot in medium and close frame, the scene is incredibly capacious. Daylight floods the screen and the ocean seems to go on endlessly around them and behind them. The openness comments on the achieved tenderness between them. Their two bodies do not seem lost or precarious but buoyed and steady. The intimacy is palpable, drawn out in the ability of two male bodies to be close and trusting and held.
Later that evening Juan and Little are sitting on a bench near the beach in a scene more ordinary for this film, shot with tight spatial dynamics that keep a chokehold on the landscape and its inhabitants. The openness of the ocean is here off-screen and barely heard—as it is for most of the film. Juan tells Little that he’s Cuban. Before viewers can absorb that affective dissonance (Juan seems black and American, not hispanic and Cuban), Juan relates the memory of an old Cuban lady telling him that, “in moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m going to call you: Blue.”
When Little asks with the straight deductive logic of children, “Is your name Blue?” Juan answers in a way that boomerangs out to the film’s title and reframes its events and trajectories: “Nah,” he replies, “At some point, you have to decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”[Quotation from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4975722/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu].
It is a sentence that might seem to reaffirm a liberal sense of core identity and the individual’s ability—even obligation—to choose, to decide, who and what to be in the world. But the scene, the memory, and the conversation introduce a fundamental ambivalence to this ideology of American individualism, since even if Juan decides not to be Blue, he still is seen as Blue by the people around him.
Whatever he decides to be, it is a decision emerging out of conditions, perspectives, and responses he did not choose. That oscillation—or seepage—between layered material-affective situations and the layered affective materiality of the self is as endless as the grains of sand, as diffuse as moonlight.
The accumulated effect is entrapment. Indeed the adult Chiron, who goes by “Black”(Travonte Rhodes) answers Kevin’s (André Holland) question about who he is with this very word. “Straight up?” he warns Kevin, who dismisses the warning and urges him to speak. “Trapped,” he offers in acute summation.
The film’s minimalist dialogue perfectly reflects and enacts the entrapments of Black and Kevin. If this were a film about finding one’s true self, then this inner truth would need to find expression in words and actions. But that is not this film. The silences between the characters, their stuttered, torn, and inept linguistic exchanges, leave viewers grasping to fill in the gaps affectively, not representationally. Our eyes can’t help but rove from the men to the neighborhoods, streets, buildings, rooms, walls, and furniture that constitute the material situations and contexts and signify the affective economies by which these men are seen and which trap them as surely as does any ‘chosen’ course of action.
Even though Black remakes himself from the ground up after his incarceration, the blocks of that refashioning could only rearrange the bars of a social prison buoyed by poverty, racism, neglect, and homophobia. The film’s persistently referenced dyad of “soft” and “hard” that puts color and flesh on what it is to be a “man” turns and twists around this social prison, and never quite settles out into the lived intimacy and capaciousness of that one scene with Juan.
And yet. If this is not a film of hope, at least it is not a film that glorifies despair.