The Making of Moonlight: A Talk About the Nature of Gay Masculinity

Moonlight is a 2016 film written and directed by Barry Jenkins. The extract begins with a circular shot that follows Terrel, a high school bully, walking around in a circle. He picks Kevin to punch Chiron to prove his own masculinity. This extract exemplifies one of the film’s major themes of masculinity in relation to sexual orientation. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton remind the audience of the negative effects that masculinity can have on people through the elements of cinematography, sound, camera techniques, and mise-en-scène. Janelle Monáe, an American singer and actress said that Moonlight “really touched my heart and aligned with the messages that I felt were extremely important to me.” She believes that it is important to celebrate people who are often discriminated against for their sexual orientation.

Moonlight was named the best film of 2016 by several media outlets and the film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Moonlight opens up an extremely important conversation about the nature of gay masculinity. Although there were people telling Jenkins that creating Moonlight “is career suicide,” he created the film to try to address the issues and find solutions for the mistreatment that certain people undergo for being who they are. Actor Trevante Rhodes, who plays the role of “Black” in the film, said that “if we can fathom stripping away sexual orientation, skin colour, and sex, we’re all the exact same.”

Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Jenkins wanted to create Moonlight because the play was deeply personal to him. In making the film, he learned about his own perceptions of masculinity and male sexuality. Moonlight became the first LGBTQ-related film and the production allowed Jenkins to become an “active ally” to the LGBTQ community. As a straight man, Jenkins had some trepidation about filming at the beginning, but with the help of McCraney, a gay playwright, he felt that he could tell Chiron’s story. The film takes place in Liberty City, which is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Miami and home to one of the largest concentrations of African Americans in South Florida, where Jenkins grew up. Jenkins used his own experience, growing up with a mother who was struggling with an addiction, to produce the film. Jenkins thinks of his life growing up in Miami as very heavy, although it was a beautiful and inspiring place. Jenkins uses bold and expressive colours to create a sense of mood and uses an editing style that is dictated by emotions rather than plot. His work explores the nature of love and his style is evident in the screenshots from Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

The chosen extract begins with a menacing circular shot of Terrell, like an animal circling its prey, where the camera focuses solely on Terrel for a long time. The spinning is intended to put the audience is a state of tension, uncertain as to how the scene will play out. When Terell walks around the circle, there is non-diegetic sound playing, which causes a dramatic effect. There are many other students standing in the background, eager to see what is going to happen. The presence of other people standing around visually displays the social pressure and the power dynamic at hand. According to the director, “the world has literally drilled us down into this standoff” in a place where masculinity has become toxic. After the circular shot, the camera stops moving and there is a close-up of Kevin. There is a shallow depth of field, drawing the attention of the audience to Kevin. There is hatchet lighting on Kevin as an internal conflict is created because he does not know if he should punch Chiron or not.

As the camera is placed farther back, Kevin is surrounded by other students, showing that he has support. On the other hand, there is nobody in the background when there is a close-up of Chiron, indicating that he is alone and has to suffer by himself. There is a build up in sound before Kevin punches Chiron for the first time. Cinematographer James Laxton used handheld cameras in this scene because “it felt more immediate and interesting than a designed camera shot.” The use of handheld cameras allows the audience to experience it the same way the actors experience it.

Throughout this scene, the bullies are telling Kevin what to do, although they are not in the frame. Meanwhile, Chiron doesn’t say anything or try to defend himself, even though he is getting punched in the face multiple times. Kevin tells Chiron to “stay down” after punching him, but Chiron keeps getting back up to see how far Kevin will go in order to prove his masculinity. In this scene, Kevin is wearing a blue shirt with white lines and Chiron is wearing a white shirt with blue lines, showing that Kevin and Chiron complete each other. Instead of the sound of the breeze that the audience hears when Kevin and Chiron are together, there is complete silence after Chiron is knocked out by Kevin, which conveys the death of their friendship. According to Jenkins, this scene is “the clearest performance of the ill effects of masculinity.”

The second act begins with Chiron sitting in the principal’s office with a bag of ice on his head. There is a shallow depth of field, as only Chiron is in focus, allowing the audience to get a closer look at him. The camera stays still on Chiron’s face for a long duration, as he appears to be isolated. Chiron breaks down for the first time in the film after the principal admonishes him for not pressing charges against the bullies. It offers a glimpse into how excruciating it can be to grow up where masculinity is toxic.

When the principal comes closer to Chiron to talk to him, the sound is slowly drowned out, until there is complete silence because the principal’s voice is not getting through to Chiron. One of the film’s editors, Joi McMillon, said that Jenkins “likes to play up the silences and allow the viewer to process what the character is thinking.” There is an odd camera angle, showing Chiron’s discomfort, as the principal is talking to him.

In Chiron’s washroom, the camera pans down on him as he is washing his face with ice water in a sink. This is the first of two times that Chiron is seen doing this in the film. There is a build up in sound foreshadowing that Chiron is going to take matters into his own hands. He takes a long look at himself in the mirror and the audience is allowed into his internal world as he makes a decision on what he wants to do about all of his anger and frustration. Alex Hibbert, who plays “Little,” said in an interview that “Chiron uses his face to talk with not his mouth.” The green tone and the flicker of the fluorescent lighting enhance the slow motion and camera movement, giving audience a feel of a heart that is broken with violence. Cinematographer James Laxton used a green tone in the bathroom because “it provides an ugliness and a darkness that speaks to the emotional moment that Chiron is experiencing.” In the third chapter, when Chiron is nicknamed “Black,” there is a blue tone is his bathroom because it “emphasizes more of a cold, hardened feel, which the character at this moment in his life represents.” When Chiron washes his face, he is simultaneously washing away the old Chiron. Water is seen in the film in times of change for Chiron, as he transitions into “Black” in the third chapter.

The third act begins with a series of jump cuts that follow Chiron on the way to his classroom. Chiron is dressed is a vibrant blue shirt, there are several blue doors in the school, and even some of the other students are wearing blue clothes. This links back to the quote from Juan, who said: “in moonlight, black boys look blue.” To be blue means to be yourself, and this scene shows the audience Chiron’s true self. The non-diegetic sound of the drums is much more lively than previous scenes and increases in volume each time Chiron is approaching a door. The scene opens with a shot of Chiron from behind, as the reactions of the characters who see his face indicate that something has changed.

The camera is then repositioned in front of Chiron, where there is a close-up that gives the audience a better indication of his intentions. There is an extremely low depth of field as Chiron is walking to his classroom, as all of the surroundings are blurred out, signifying that nothing else matters except for Chiron getting to his classroom. The camera switches from in front of Chiron to behind him every time he opens a door. Chiron’s intentions are getting further and further away from the audience, yet also more and more confident.

When Chiron enters the classroom, the music stops and there is a much deeper depth of field, as the audience has a better idea of Chiron’s intentions. After hitting Terrel in the back with a chair, the camera stays still as Terrel lays of the ground. This differs from the first act, where the camera was still moving after Chiron got knocked out. There is a low angle shot of Chiron that shows his dominance over Terrel. This is the first time in Chiron’s life that he is standing up for himself, which is something that he has hesitated to do in the past. In this scene, most of the sound is coming from Chiron, while Terrel doesn’t say anything. This contrasts the first act where Terrel was encouraging Kevin to punch Chiron, while Chiron did not say anything. After getting arrested, Chiron sees Kevin standing outside the police car wearing a grey and white shirt that looks similar to a prison garb. This foreshadows that both Kevin and Chiron will spend time in prison later in their lives.

In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins artfully tells Chiron’s journey to manhood through sound, cinematography, mise-en-scène, and camera techniques. In the extract, Jenkins shows viewers of the ill effects that masculinity can have on people. In Jenkins’ words “sometimes how you ingest this idea of masculinity as projected onto you by the world could be the difference of life and death.”

07 July 2022
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