Moonlight Movie Review & Film Summary

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In a world where evil seems to lurk around every corner, social media is used to hide authenticity, and political anxiety rages, Moonlight reminds viewers that humanity can prevail through it all. A coming of age story of a black, gay, and poor boy named Chiron living in 1980s Miami, the film is a visual, dream-like poem exposing the depth of the people living in the most dangerous hood of Miami: Liberty City. The story is told in three chapters labeled “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black,” each chronicling Chiron’s childhood, teen years, and adult life. Moonlight takes a breathtaking approach to the grim reality usually associated with drugs, poverty, and homophobia, and paints a beautiful picture around these themes with vibrant colors and unique lighting. The film takes place in the height of Nixon’s “war on drugs” in America, where black communities associated with drugs were heavily criminalized and disrupted. Moonlight as a dramatic film achieves what a classically labeled Melodrama is designed to do which as described by Thomas Elsaeser, is to “sharpen social conflicts and portray an urban environment where chance encounters, coincidences, and the side-by-side existence of extreme social and moral contrasts are the natural products of the very conditions of existence” (Trice). The film directed by Barry Jenkins and written by Terrell McCraney, both men who grew up in Liberty City facing many of the same struggles Chiron does, fill the screen with remarkable authenticity. Through Jenkins’ and McCraney’s unique use of lighting, color, and cinematography, Moonlight artistically exposes the humanity of a vastly underrepresented community and emotionally infuses Chiron’s thoughts and feelings into the audience’s core.

Moonlight exquisitely uses light and color to enhance the immersion of the audience into Chiron’s thoughts and feelings. Well known for its groundbreaking lighting of black actors, Moonlight embraces the tension of the location in what Jenkins calls “a beautiful nightmare” (Jenkins). The film uses the bright and colorful beauty of Miami to brilliantly juxtapose the extremely dark things that happen to the characters. Viewers lose themselves in Chiron’s feelings through “a dream-like immersion rooted in color and the light of Miami” (Jenkins). Cinematographer, James Laxton and Jenkins worked together to create the perfectly rich color in the actors’ skin tones by utilizing a high contrast ratio and pulling information out of the mid-tones, adding blue to blacks, and teasing out the highlights to create a white glint on top of the images (“Moonlight Cinematography”). Laxton used contrast shadow from the sun and sheen of the natural perspiration to sculpt the characters’ faces. This lighting highlights the emotion and depth of each character. The audience is able to see the rich beauty in many of the men in the film, furthering the immersion of Chiron’s point of view. The lighting in Moonlight breaks down a long-time lighting bias for whiteness. Historically, film and TV strive to light white actors in the most flattering ways, neglecting the lighting needs of many darker skinned actors. As Richard Dyer states in “Lighting for Whiteness,” “Movie lighting focuses on the individual. Each person has lighting tailored to his or her personality. Each important person that is” (Dyer). In most movies, lighting has been held to the standard of whiteness, thus individualizing white characters and clumping black characters together into one group. Moonlight, on the other hand, changes that standard and proves there is no reason black characters cannot be individualized by lighting too. The use of lighting and color also emphasizes Moonlight’s melodramatic genre. As stated by notable film academic, Jasmine Trice, “Melodrama allows viewers to collectively empathize with the pain and suffering of innocent victims, as well as the actions of those who seek to rescue them” (Trice). The very essence of this film stirs emotion and love for the main character, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Jaden Piner). There is a forceful specificity in Chiron’s circumstances, yet through cinematic elements, viewers feel an incomparable sense of intimacy with Chiron no matter what walk of life they come from. The specific lighting techniques shown in this film alongside the use of color and particular cinematic elements are what make the depth in Jenkins’ characters as seen in the following analyses.

The extraordinary use of light and color in Moonlight enables the emotional richness of the story. The connecting scene between chapters ii. and iii. in the bathroom of Chiron submerging his face in the sink of ice water is extremely demonstrative. The lighting of the second chapter’s bathroom scene is dim with green hues. Both lighting and color represent Chiron’s emotional state. He is washing his face in the cold water after being beaten by his friend Kevin from a cruel game of “Knockout.” Kevin is the only person the audience sees Chiron be intimate with, not only sexually, but emotionally as well. Pain is omnipresent in Chiron’s life as he struggles with his drug addicted mother, poverty, and his sexuality in a world that does not approve of the gender he loves. However, getting beaten by Kevin is what truly breaks his heart. The violence is gut wrenching and the affects it has on Chiron are amplified by the ugly green hues and flickering florescent light. These elements work to enhance the slow-motion camera movement that allows the audience to directly feel this heart break. The close up of Chiron’s face shows the aggression of his state of mind. The preceding Knockout scene changes Chiron forever. Here, he symbolically washes away the old Chiron and introduces the new Chiron who will get his revenge on one of his bullies and later transform into “Black,” an unrecognizable, hyper-masculinized adult.

This bathroom scene repeats itself in the final chapter of the film in the introduction to Black, the burly, drug dealing menace Chiron has become. The bathroom scene serves as a strikingly perfect connection between the two chapters. In the third chapter, Black submerges his face in a sink of ice water again after awaking from a nightmare of his mother. Like the first bathroom scene, the lighting and color is telling of Black’s emotional state. Here, the lighting is still dim but accented with hues of saturated blue representing how hardened and closed off Chiron has become. In a world where men, especially black men, are scrutinized for being “soft” yet reprimanded for being violent, there is little room to just be. This struggle with masculinity is clearly seen through Chiron’s battle to navigate his place in a world that does not want him for who he is. The only way Chiron learns how to survive is to hide behind a veil of masculinity, so people will never question him. Hiding behind masculinity is not new for homosexual men. As shown in “Baby It’s Cold Out in Hollywood: Rock Hudson’s Multiple Masculinities,” “It could be claimed that Rock Hudson was one of the greatest actors who ever lived: a gay man who became an unassailable international symbol of heterosexuality” (Bell-Metereau). Like Hudson, Chiron has a keen sense of the implications his identity has in the world and covers it in order to survive. Again, the struggles Chiron faces are highly specific, yet through Jenkins’ brilliant cinematic language, audiences can empathize with Chiron in an unbearable amount of intimacy.

In another repeating and impactful scene from the film, Chiron’s mother, Paula, frighteningly yells at her small son. The scene is silent with no words spoken while Chiron and Paula stare at each other intensely. The dynamic close ups of both Paula and Chiron during this scene emphasize the brokenness in this mother-son relationship and the toll life is taking on the both of them. So much happens behind Paula’s eyes as she glares at Chiron. The audience doesn’t hear her words, but the cinematic image speaks volumes. In order to do justice to the emotional value of the story as well as the stand out performance of Naomie Harris (Paula), particular decisions on lighting and color were made to intimately connect the audience with Chiron and give Paula’s character three-dimensional value. As cinematographer Laxton explains, “There is soft, overhead dramatic lighting with accents of color, one of those being the pink light in the background behind Paula. These pops of color offer a beauty and map to understand the full existence of our characters” (“Moonlight Cinematography”). This scene offers a sophisticated look on the characters in the film. While Paula appears to just be a terrible mother neglecting her young boy and responsibilities due to drugs, the soft pink lighting shows the audience her beauty and femininity. Here we are shown her humanity, her pain, and struggle. “Fear, love, and hate coexist at the same time” (“Moonlight’s Cinematographer”) in this scene. These feelings are directly infused into the audience through use of lighting and color. This moment between Paula and Chiron is heavy and holds a strange beauty that gives the audience a deeper comprehension of Paula’s character. This is the essence of Moonlight: to find the humanity in every character no matter how corrupt they may seem to evoke the viewer empathy associated with the Melodrama. The landscape surrounding these characters does not define them and Jenkins does an amazing job portraying that.

In addition to light and color demonstrating the multifaceted depths of Moonlight’s characters, the cinematography of the movie transcends all previous understanding audiences may have of people growing up in a dangerous hood like Liberty City. The cinematography is spectacular, highly personal, and uncomfortable. The opening scene jolts audiences right away into a state of alertness as the camera whirls around Juan and his younger drug dealer in a more classically filmed Steadicam shot cutting to a frantic handheld camera scene of bullies chasing Chiron. The cinematic elements of the film establish clichés only to break them, paralleling the surprising humanity and depth behind each character. The circling camera movement is seen multiple times in the movie to give viewers the sense of community whether within the drug community, the school boys in a ballgame, or boys comparing penises. However, this circling camera movement also represents the imprisonment Chiron feels seen in the vicious game of Knockout. In the Knockout scene, a bully by the name of Terrell pressures Chiron’s friend and love interest, Kevin, to a cruel game where two boys are pinned against each other to fight until one is knocked out. The erratic spinning of the camera following Terrell is dizzying and uneasy for viewers as tension builds. The scene is blindingly bright with high contrast to emphasize the extreme feelings and suspense. The camera lands on close ups of Kevin and Chiron displaying the emotion in their eyes. Kevin, although the one physically punching, is insecure and easily influenced by what others think of him. Chiron, on the other hand, is too weak to physically fight, but shows a fearless mental toughness caused by the pain that has calloused him. The cinematography in this memorable scene and throughout the entire film is jarring in a necessary way. Jenkins’ goal of audience immersion is accomplished with the help of cinematography that breaks stereotypes surrounding the poverty of this black community. While viewers have grown accustomed to seeing black poverty, homophobia, and governmental dismissal as a problem that needs to be fixed, Jenkins shapes the issues surrounding Chiron into an individualized experience outside of its norm. Seen through Ella Shohat’s analysis of ethnicity in cinema, “The intersection of ethnicity with race, class, and gender discourses involves a shifting, relational, social and discursive positioning, whereby one group can simultaneously constitute ‘norm’ and ‘periphery’” (Shohat). Moonlight exposes a drastically underrepresented community in cinema in an entirely different light, breaking the stereotypical norms one has come to expect from a drug centered, black hood and in fact making a commonly peripheral group, a new type of normal. The cinematography of the film aids this unconventional and immersive approach to the issues seen in Moonlight.

Overall, Jenkins’ exceptional use of lighting, color, and cinematic elements immerse viewers into the mind and heart of Chiron making Moonlight the exquisite drama that it is. Moonlight beats to the sound of its own drum and follows no formula when it comes to story-telling. It is a drama that uses its own genre to hone in on social conflicts based on good, evil, and every emotion in between. This film exposes a community rarely seen in cinema through a beautiful, fresh lens via an individualized experience. This first-hand type intimacy with Chiron allows viewers to completely submerge in the glory that is Moonlight. Moonlight has gone on to win numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Picture of 2017. This praise is indicative of Jenkins’ success of complete immersion. Audiences from every walk of life are forced into the shoes of Chiron, a boy whose struggles and perspective serve as a reminder of an over-arching sense of humanity no matter the circumstance.

Works Cited

Aguirre, Abby, and Barry Jenkins. “Moonlight’s Cinematographer on Filming the Most Exquisite Movie of the Year.” Vogue, Vogue, 20 Dec. 2016,

Bell-Metereau, Rebecca, and Colleen Glenn. “Baby, It’s Cold Out in Hollywood: Rock Hudson’s Multiple Masculinities.” Star Bodies and the Erotics of Suffering, edited by Rebecca Bell-Metereau, Wayne State University Press, 2015.

Dyer, Richard. “The Light of the World.” Lighting for Whiteness, Routledge, 1997.

Mattei, Nicole. “Moonlight Cinematography Analysis.” The Odyssey Online, Odyssey, 31 Jan. 2018,

Shohat, Ella. “Ethnicities-in-Relation: Toward a Multicultural Reading of American Cinema.” Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema, edited by Lester D. Friedman, University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Trice, Jasmine. “Week One, Day One, Genre-Melodrama.” Film TV 4. 2018, Los Angeles, UCLA.  

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