PUBLISHED 24 AUG 2017
WHEN presented with the question “What is your identity?”, it would be impossible to answer with simply one word or two. Sometimes you have the answer, but then you are presented with a situation that makes you question yourself. Every human faces identity issues throughout their lives irrespective of background. Whether you are a young child, a teenager or a fully-fledged adult, finding yourself is always challenging. Arguably, what is even more challenging is having the ability to make a film that has a myriad of social themes and wrap them all into the question that asks its audience: “Who is You”?
Enter MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins 2016). The film follows Chiron, an African American living in Liberty City, a poor neighbourhood in Miami, Florida. The film’s three acts coincide with Chiron’s life stages and we witness him as a child (Alex R Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders) and adult (Trevante Rhodes). Focusing specifically on the first act of the film, the theme of identity is immediate. The first character introduced, Juan (Mahershala Ali), walks comfortably to his guy who “works the corner” and he is established as a drug dealer. Was this profession a choice? Or did the environment choose it for him. That is answered later in the film. The entire shot completes a 360 degree turn around Juan while he talks. Seconds before the scene, a little boy runs past, being chased by other children and we find out that this is Chiron as a child who is also known as “Little”. The camera is shaky and blurry and it can be said that the first two shots of this film perfectly explain the difference in the two character’s identities; Juan seemingly comfortable and Little in disarray. As the film continues, the layers are further developed.
As the friendship between Juan and Little grows we find out that even Juan, who seemed the most secure in his identity, is conflicted. Even while knowing that he sells drugs to Little’s mother and knowing that he is contributing lifelong damage to Little’s inner turmoil, he is stuck, wanting to be a father figure to Little but also being punished by his own identity as a drug dealer. He hides these facts until an exchange where Little tries to figure out his identity for the first time by asking Juan "What's a faggot?" and “Am I a faggot?” His environment has given him an identity when he does not fully understand what the label means. Without a caring mother, Little is forced to grow up with little understanding of social labels. That is the last time we see Little and Juan in the same place. By the third act, Chiron is drug dealing, just like Juan. This brings Juan’s story full circle through Chiron. Like kindred spirits, Juan tries to lead Chiron away from his fate but ends up being the direct influence on Chiron’s adult life and masking his true identity.
MOONLIGHT has the ability to teach its audience something about themselves. Forming a unique identity is a fundamental part of the human psyche and this film is rooted in the fundamentals of humanity - something we can all identify with. You can either create your identity, or the environment around you will give you one whether you like it or not.
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