Moonlight portrays three episodes in the life of Chiron, a black man who grows up in the inner city of Miami. Instead of the totality of his life, or an un-interrupted narrative, the film shows first an episode titled Little, that spans from his encounter with a paternal figure until the loss of innocence. The second episode, Chiron, opens with the paralyzing passivity of a teenager overwhelmed by bullying and his mother’s addiction; and ends where —unfortunately— too many black American teenagers’ stories end: in a cop car, handcuffed, let down by a justice system that would not protect him, but that would readily vilify him. The third one, Black, shows a stereotype of black masculinity: a monumental body with golden teeth, apparently unbreakable, that shatters in the arms of the only man he ever touched.
The film is a Coming-of-age story and depicts the process of identity formation not only of the main character, but also of the world around him. It is a story of systemic oppression, of addiction, of love, the possibility of (re)understanding hegemonic masculinity and choosing vulnerability.
- Coming-of-age Stories
All such stories are mirrors of the world they represent. They create our worlds, untangling them.
For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) uses the Midwest as the stage of a developing national identity, that struggles with the confusing formation of a united post-civil war persona, among feelings of loss, hatred, and mourning that persist until this day. Huck’s relationship with his abusive father, with Jim, Widow Douglas, all depict an aspect of the nation and, although they do not provide a clear-cut definition of American, they untangle the possibilities of new relationships that had not existed until then. The Coming-of-age Story, as a genre, usefully depicts every aspect of how the world comes to be, by means of a causative mosaic or quilt.
As the main character develops, so is the world created. If the Coming-of-age genre was able to describe the emerging and unified American identity, what can Moonlight tell us about the inner cities of America, the intersections of racial and sexual oppression, about paternity, maternity, and the emerging world?
The small Chiron hides from the bullies in an abandoned apartment. Juan finds him and takes him home, feeds him, and becomes a fortuitous father, patient and loving. Within the genre of the Coming-of-age, Juan represents a mentor, a possible path ahead, that of a drug dealer. But Juan is not the stereotypical-Law-&-Order dealer, but a gentle man, with a great sense of humor and a stable relationship. Juan takes Chiron to the sea and he carries him in a rite that looks almost like a baptism for its solemnity. The sea becomes the place where Chiron always returns. In terms of Michel Foucault, the sea becomes a heterotopia; a place that allows non-hegemonic things to happen. where Chiron can escape and the unintelligible takes place.
In a fundamental scene, we see Chiron’s mother, high and violent, scream one of the words that defines the protagonist’s experience: faggot.
In the last scene of his childhood, Chiron asks Juan the meaning of the word. Juan explains that people use it when they want to hurt a gay person. Chiron asks if her mother is an addict and if Juan is her dealer. The answer to the question ends his childhood.
This episode is about love and the hostility of the world. Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin, of afro-latinx heritage, becomes his object of desire. We know that Juan has died, but we can only see the ripples that his death could have had in the protagonist. His mother, lost in addiction, gives everything for the rock and takes whatever Chiron has.
Chiron goes back to the sea, where he finds Kevin. There, the unfathomable happens: a hiss and an orgasm. The next day, under the pressure of compulsory violent masculinity, Kevin is forced to beat Chiron up. The teachers that break up the fight are unable to protect him.
When Chiron fights back and goes to prison.
There is no place for love in this world, where every relationship means pain. Any semblance of queerness is destroyed. Misery and sexual identity conflate to throw Chiron into the next heterotopia: prison.
Chiron ends up where his mentor started, as a dealer. His mother, in a sort of clinic, apologizes. She does not know how to tell him to love himself; but, at least, she is able to tell him that she loves him, even if he cannot love her back.
After a phone call, Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see Kevin once again. Like a mirror of his own story, Kevin has also been to prison, but has become a cook and a father, although he is not married. Kevin’s sexuality is murky, but it needs no clarity. Chiron finally tells him why he is there: because he has never touched anyone else. The episode ends not in a sexual encounter, but in an embrace, in the possibility of love and company.
In the last scene, little Chiron stands in front of the sea, in the moonlight, and in silence he seems to say that everything that has happened could have been different… but the world is the way it is. The justice system punishes the strange and the poor. Addiction, drugs, poverty, and ignorance lay the path ahead.
And, although the world is hostile and media often represents black men as stereotypes of extraordinary strength and unchecked violence, here Chiron, Juan, and Kevin are compassionate. Juan can be the father of a boy he does not know. Kevin can hold his friend. Chiron can be a sea of tears. The beauty of the film is in the intelligibility of kindness.
 “In the event-racked revolutionary years of the late eighteenth century, the emergence of the hero’s character increasingly mirrored the emergence— socially, economically, politically, ideationally—of the world around him” (3). Thomas Jeffers. Apprenticeships: the Bildungsroman from Goethe to Santayana. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
 Foucault uses the example of the mirror, the cemetery or prison, places where social rules change and enable the intelligibility of death, sex, or any taboo.
Follow Ricardo Quintana Vallejo on Twitter: @realquir