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Film / Moonlight (2016)

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"Who is you, Chiron?"
Kevin as an adult

Moonlight is a 2016 Coming of Age drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

The film is largely centered around a boy named Chiron, and follows his burgeoning sexuality and his life in Miami, starting as a shy child (Alex Hibbert), continuing as an awkward teenager (Ashton Sanders) and ending as a hardened adult (Trevante Rhodes). These stages of his life are presented in three acts, each one named for Chiron's preferred name at that point: Act i: Little; Act ii: Chiron; Act iii: Black.

Other characters include his unreliable and emotionally manipulative crack addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), his mother's drug dealer and Chiron's unlikely father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali), Juan's girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and most importantly Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland), who starts as Chiron's Only Friend before eventually becoming something more.

Among its many accolades, Moonlight was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ali), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Jenkins and McCraney). Infamously, it was subject to the most notorious mix-up in the history of the ceremony, as an envelope switch resulted in La La Land being announced as the Best Picture winner before the latter film's producer Jordan Horowitz announced the mistake. Quite a lot of coverage of the awards focused more on the mistake than on the film itself, which garnered a fair amount of criticism in return.

Media frenzy aside, Moonlight is notable for several milestones related to its Best Picture Oscar win: it was the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBTQ+-themed film, the second lowest-grossing film domestically (adjusted for inflation, behind The Hurt Locker), and the lowest-budget film (adjusted for inflation) to win the award. After its awards win, it eventually rose to a $28 million domestic and $65 million worldwide gross, outdrawing its budget by at least sixteen times and possibly as many as forty-threenote ).

Moonlight contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Paula, particularly in Act Two. She gets better and expresses sincere regret for her actions in Act Three.
  • Addiction Displacement: Paula has switched from drugs to regular cigarettes when apologizing to Chiron.
  • An Aesop: The film overall relies on Show, Don't Tell for the vast majority of its storytelling, being particularly light on dialogue, and completely averts Author Tract; the filmmakers seem to have deliberately intended the film to have as much applicability as possible. Regardless, it can still be considered to possess a few clear themes:
    • While it may be a painful process, coming to an acceptance of one's true identity is crucial to finding long-term happiness.
    • Violence, while it may be momentarily satisfying, rarely solves anything in the long term, and often creates more problems than it solves.
    • Most people are ultimately simply trying to survive, and many of their most unpleasant actions are responses to social processes, unfortunate circumstances leaving them from few other friends, or other circumstances beyond their control. Poverty, in particular, tends to beget negative behavior as a result of the sheer desperation it causes those who suffer it.
    • If a person who has wronged you is sincerely repentant, it may enrich your life to forgive them, particularly if you were once close but are now estranged.
  • The Aggressive Drug Dealer: Averted with Juan. While his job is never glamorized or portrayed as being okay, exactly, it's never demonized, either. He's never seen pushing his product on anyone, and avoids discussing it with Chiron, until Chiron asks him point-blank if he's a dealer. Juan is portrayed as a likable, honest, genuinely nice guy who's a good father figure to Chiron — selling drugs is just his job.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Chiron was viciously ostracized throughout his life.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Kevin's sexuality is never identified explicitly, though he seems to be attracted to women as well as Chiron, and mentions that he fathered a child with one of his ex-girlfriends. Chiron himself seems to spend a lot of his time in the "Black" segment figuring out whether Kevin is still attracted to men.
  • Amicable Exes: Downplayed. Act 3 has Kevin reveal to be a father and admits that while he and his son's mother don't like each other, they do get along for their kid's sake.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: The film ends with Chiron tearfully admitting his love for Kevin, who reciprocates.
  • Appropriated Appellation: After originally disliking the nickname, Chiron eventually starts answering to "Black" in Atlanta.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    • When Juan confronts Paula about how her drug use hurts Chiron, Paula mockingly asks him why, if he cares so much, he doesn't just stop selling drugs to her. His answering silence says it all.
    • And when Chiron, after asking Juan if he sells drugs, asks if his Mom does drugs. Not only is Juan silent in response, but he seems near tears.
  • Babies Ever After: Downplayed. The woman with who Kevin had a son isn't seen in either of the first two Acts.
  • Bath of Poverty: Early on, Chiron is shown heating water over the stove and using dish detergent for his bath because his mother can't afford hot running water or bath soap.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Chiron spends most of his youth being viciously bullied by almost everyone around him for being socially withdrawn, but we see glimpses of his breaking point when Terrel repeatedly harasses him over his mom and Juan's girlfriend. Chiron eventually snaps to the point he breaks a wooden chair over Terrel's head, causing him enough pain that he starts curling up on the floor, showing that he had potential for violence all along.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Chiron is forced to sell drugs to support himself thanks to the homophobic bullying he went through in his youth, he's scarred enough to have never formed any intimate relationships since high school, and it's heavily implied that most of the damage done to him is permanent. However, despite all that, he ultimately reconciles with his mother and Kevin, starting a relationship with the latter and thus finally coming to terms with his sexuality, showing that at least some of his wounds will heal.
  • Book Ends: In "Little", the film's first act, Chiron's surrogate father figure, Juan, makes ends meet by dealing crack at the height of the drug's epidemic. In "Black", the film's final act, Chiron is himself forced to sell drugs to make ends meet after being arrested for assaulting Terrel.
  • Break the Haughty: Implied with Terrel. After Chiron breaks a chair over his head, he curls up into a ball on his side as tightly as he can, implying that he's crying from the pain and doesn't want anyone to see.
  • The Bully: Terrel constantly harasses and belittles Chiron.
  • Bully Brutality: Terrel is a homoantagonistic asshole. He constantly harasses Chiron, culminating in pressuring Kevin, Chiron's Only Friend, to hit Chiron. After which Terrel and his posse kick the downed Chiron.
  • Bully Magnet: Poor Chiron had it worse ever since he was a little kid. Though he represses his feelings of homosexuality throughout his adolescence, he still becomes a target for the bullies because of his social awkwardness, frail physique and for not being traditionally masculine. It's only after Chiron stands up to one of his bullies and beats them senseless when he becomes noticeably manlier and masculine, though this is mostly just a front he uses to adapt into the harsher reality of adulthood.
  • Bury Your Gays: Averted. While the film is frequently tragic (some of which is due to Chiron being attacked by homophobic bullies), none of the gay or bi characters die.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Both a downplayed and non-malicious example. Chiron's sexual encounter with Kevin was a hugely life-shaping event. For Kevin, it wasn't forgotten, but it wasn't the life-changing event that it was for Chiron.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Chiron only has a few words to say as an adult when Paula says she didn't become clean for him to end up as a drug dealer, but they are tinged with anger about her hypocrisy and that she only seems to care when it's too late. In fact, he threatens to leave and he can this time since he's independent and doesn't rely on his mother to feed or house him. It's only because Paula apologizes and says he doesn't owe her any love that he's willing to hear her out.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Implied Trope. The characters never outright say this, but the poverty the characters experience is implied to be a significant contributing factor to their criminal activities, since they have to eat somehow, and they have few or no options to support themselves outside the criminal underworld.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: The last sequence of the movie is a particularly well-done version. Both Chiron and Kevin keep dancing in circles before the declaration of love comes.
  • Celebrity Paradox: A musical example; in the "Black" segment, Chiron listens to Jidenna's "Classic Man," the video for which features Janelle Monáe.
  • Character Development: Rather than story, this is the central focus of the film. Nearly every major character who appears in more than one act has an arc towards self-acceptance or maturity.
    • Kevin shows this the most. He starts as a kid trying to fit in, and is coerced by a bully into beating up his best friend for the crime of being gay. Kevin knows it's his fault that Chiron snaps the next day by beating up Terrel with a chair, which leads to the former's life of crime. Even so, it takes ten years and fathering a child for him to muster the courage to find Chiron, who now goes by Black, and apologize to him. Chiron knows that Kevin is sincere in his apology because the latter has a stable life as a cook and presumably had relationships with women. Kevin also seems to implicitly promise he'll help Chiron escape the life of drug dealing.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Chiron has one of these with Kevin. It ends when Chiron is sent to juvie, but possibly reinstated when they meet again as adults.
  • Coming of Age Story: The major theme of the work is Chiron growing and finding out who he is.
  • Coming-Out Story: A downplayed example as we never see Chiron truly "out" himself publicly, but the movie ends with Chiron accepting himself and his love for another man. The downplaying of this is a huge case of Truth in Television for LGBT+ individuals of color, for whom the "coming out" narrative is a rarity in part due to the difficulties involved with intersecting identities, which has historically led to them being misperceived by white LGBT+ individuals as self-hating or as suffering from internalized homophobia. Given this, the film acts as a vivid showcase of the additional tribulations black gay men face compared to their white counterparts and how many of their own experiences with coming to terms with their sexuality are forced into subtlety as a result of these hardships.
  • Cool Kid-and-Loser Friendship: Deconstructed. Part 2 shows that Chiron is still ostracized by his peers while Kevin has become somewhat popular. However, their relationship proves to be detrimental given how Terrel pressured Kevin into beating up Chiron.
  • Crossing the Burnt Bridge: It makes up a huge portion of the third act. Paula has been asking Chiron to visit her in rehab several times. Kevin calls, inviting Chiron to dinner in Miami. Both of them betrayed him in act two, in different ways. Understandably, Chiron goes to the visits expecting nothing, only more disappointment.
  • Death Glare: Chiron has turned this into an art form as an adult; he spends most of the time glaring stonily. Subverted by the fact that in his case it's a non-threatening gesture, but a trait he inherited from his childhood. He's rather taciturn and often prefers others to lead his conversations, meaning for the most part he's awkwardly staring at the other person as they navigate the discussion. The few exceptions where this trope is almost literally applicable is during his confrontations with the middle-school bullies in the second act, and towards his Mother (and Kevin towards the end of ii) where it's used to express dejection and/or defiance.
  • Delinquents: Chiron's retaliation towards Terrel lands him in juvie. As a result, the third act has a considerable amount of discussion on how that path shaped him.
  • Descent into Addiction: Paula's struggle with crack is documented over three acts, as she regresses from a relatively functional addict in Act One to an addled addict in Act Two. In Act Three, we learn she's a recovered addict.
  • Dirty Coward: Terrel spends a majority of his screen time getting his peers to help him beat up Chiron. When Chrion retaliates by breaking a chair over Terrel's head, Terrel crumples to the floor and doesn't get up. As Chiron is being forcibly led out of the room following his violent act, Terrel can be seen curling as hard as he can into a ball, presumably crying in pain. This heavily contrasts Chiron who, despite being physically weak and alone, never completely gives in to being bullied and defies his bullies even after being repeatedly beaten and harassed.
  • Disappeared Dad: Juan asks Little if he knows where his father is. He does not, which leads to Juan becoming a Parental Substitute.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Much more nuanced than this trope is normally handled. Drugs are more portrayed as tragic than outright bad. Paula's addiction is a terrible thing, of course, but she's still ultimately portrayed sympathetically and Juan and Black are both drug dealers whose personalities (but NOT their trade) are shown in a positive light, even though their profession is seen In-Universe as being unfortunate.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Chiron suffers horrifically throughout the film, but eventually comes to a point of self-acceptance and manages to renew his romance with Kevin.
  • Early Personality Signs: Chiron's awkwardness, quietness, and social distance is seen in the first act and carries all the way to the third.
  • Elemental Motifs: Water always surrounds Chiron. He was "baptized" in the river by Juan, has his first sexual experience with Kevin near the ocean, compares himself to a bundle of drops that just want to roll away, soaks his face in ice near the end of Act 2 and in the beginning of Act 3, and the film ends with a young Chiron facing a body of water.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Kevin is Chiron's Only Friend in school and First Love so Terrel coercing Kevin into attacking Chiron is his breaking point, leading him to finally retaliate.
  • Erotic Dream: As a teen, Chiron dreams about Kevin having sex with a girl.
  • Foil: Paula and her unnamed companion serve largely to highlight their differences to Teresa and Juan.
    • Paula is Chiron's biological mother who frowns upon Juan's relationship with Little, yet Teresa is shown to be more a mother to Chiron than Paula ever could be. Paula sneers at how Chiron might be gay, while Teresa is open and accepting. In the second act, Paula even forces Chiron from home for the night and Teresa is there for him, ready and willing to help him with anything he needs.
    • Like Juan, Paula's companion refers to Chiron as "Little Man" and is tied to the underworld of drugs. Unlike Juan, he does not care about Little's well-being and instead is making his homelife even worse by enabling Paula's drug habit.
  • Forgiveness
    • For all the reasons he has to be angry at her, including the emotional and physical abuse, Black eventually works up the courage to visit his mother in rehab and forgive her. She tells him he doesn't have to, considering all that she's done, and he only needs to know that she loves him.
    • Kevin beat up Chiron in high school, and allowed the local bully to beat him up further, as a result of peer pressure. It takes years for Kevin to look up Chiron, who has now become a drug dealer and essentially trapped in that world thanks to the bullying, and to apologize to him. They end up rekindling their relationship.
  • Friendly Neighborhood Gangster: Juan is a fairly prominent drug-dealer in his neighborhood, but he's friendly to his employees, his clients, and he winds up taking a neighborhood youth under his wing just because.
  • Gayngst: By age 11 this is already factoring into Chiron's life. It contributes to his "otherness" and even his own mother screams homophobic slurs at him. In both childhood acts it's the bullies' favorite reason for picking on Chiron.
  • Gayngster: Chiron grows up to be a heavily muscled drug dealer, who's in love with another man.
  • Generation Xerox: Black is a drug dealer who clearly styles himself after his Parental Substitute Juan. Aside from the career "choice," he drives a car similar to Juan's (with an identical dashboard ornament and warning lights in similar places) and his personal appearance and mannerisms echo Juan's.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Everybody, including the drug dealers, are just trying to deal with the hand life gave them. The closest thing to a villain is Chiron's bully. Even Paula, shown in the second act in a particularly harsh light, is proven to ultimately be a decent person that's been dealt a rough hand but is striving to redeem herself and keep herself clean. Borders on White-and-Grey Morality, but none of its characters (apart from possibly Teresa) is depicted without any significant flaws.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Chiron was a good kid, pushed past his breaking point and retaliated against a borderline psychopathic bully. But it set him down a path that he couldn't break free from, ultimately becoming a drug dealer.
  • Hate Sink: In a movie full of complex characters who operate on White-and-Grey Morality, Terrel is probably the only outright evil or sadistic one.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: In the second act, Kevin is introduced talking about having sex with a girl, despite the fact that it soon becomes clear that he's more than likely bisexual.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Sexually Active Today?: Combined with Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?, Kevin was introduced in the second act stealth-bragging about getting caught by a teacher having sex with a girl. The veracity of the statement is... indeterminate, given teenagers' tendency to inflate the truth.
  • He Is All Grown Up: Skinny, quiet "Little" grows up to be a strong, barrel-chested man, and Kevin wryly comments on the change a few times.
  • Homage: The cinematography and the visual style of this film homages Wong Kar-wai many times. Similarly, during a scene you can hear a version of Cucurrucucu Paloma, sung by Caetano Veloso, which was previously used in Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together and Almodovar's Talk to Her, both films that touch the same topics of identity and masculinity that this movie does.
  • Humans Are Flawed: As mentioned under Rousseau Was Right, this film has elements of both tropes. Its Grey-and-Gray Morality certainly recalls this trope, as do the unpleasantness of the setting and the significant, destructive social challenges its characters face. However, ultimately most of its characters are shown, beneath their flaws, to be decent people overall, probably pushing it closer to Rousseau Was Right.
  • Humble Goal: Kevin says that a meager existence as a short order cook, barely scraping by monetarily, isn't much, but it's a life, which he never had before.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Paula initially doesn't want Little to consort with Juan, a drug dealer despite the fact that she herself is a junkie.
    • Paula also throws this back at Juan who is furious that she's a crack-addict despite the fact that she gets it from his organization.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each of the film's three acts is named after the name Chiron goes by during it: "Little," "Chiron," and "Black."
The Immodest Orgasm: Chiron experiences this on the beach while Kevin gives the former a handjob while the two share a kiss.
  • In-Universe Catharsis: Subverted. Terrel is set up to be such a Hate Sink when Chiron finally reaching his Rage Breaking Point and smacking him over the head with a chair seems cathartic for him. However, the rest of the film examines how this negatively impacts Chiron's life going forward. Despite being a fundamentally decent person, he ends up becoming defined by this single act in his life, and he ultimately ends up in a life of crime because he has few or no other options.
  • Inherent in the System: Apart from Terrel, none of the characters are depicted as bad people, but the film also implies that few of them had much in the way of choices, and their actions are depicted as being largely the results of their circumstances. As a result, the film's portrayal of both addicts and drug dealers is more sympathetic than the usual one, but it does so without glamorising their circumstances at all.
  • Irony: By the time Paula gets clean, and to break from the cycle of drug abuse, her only child has become a dealer.
  • Jerkass: Terrel is definitely this. He's an intensely homophobic bigot to an almost homicidal degree who convinces his friends to beat up Chiron and pressures his Only Friend do the same. He's also pretty hostile to other students as well, with a small detail of him pushing one of them for simply bumping into him.
  • Jerkass Realization: It's implied that Kevin felt this after beating up Chiron, when Chiron fought back by beating the tar out of Terrel. Ten years of growing up and having a kid of his own make him realize that he needs to apologize to Chiron for ruining his life. It goes further when he learns that Chiron has become a drug dealer, probably due to the criminal record, and is upset about that.
  • Junkie Parent: Chiron's mother cares more about drugs than her own son. She's very neglectful and abusive.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Kevin beats up Chiron under the influence of peer pressure. He gets off scot-free, while Chiron is sent to juvie for attacking Terrel with a chair. We find out that Kevin later had various relationships with women and has a legitimate job as a short-order cook in a diner. Kevin is legitimately bowled-over and guilty when Chiron casually reveals that thanks to his criminal record, he decided to go into drug dealing because there weren't many options for him. Chiron also points out Kevin has no right to judge him, after what happened.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Chiron's first scene is him being chased by a Gang of Bullies, and his Only Friend is Kevin, who only talks to him when no one else is around. Later, even Kevin turns on him at Terrel's instigation, and when Terrel and his friends beat Chiron down, no other students come to his defense.
  • Killed Offscreen: Juan dies between Acts I and II. The funeral is given a casual mention in the second act, averting characters mentioning it awkwardly to tell the audience.
  • Latino Is Brown: Lampshaded by Juan. Being a black Cuban he is an aversion, but he acknowledges the prevalence of this perception when he says most Americans don't realize there are black people living all over the world.
  • Love Redeems: By the end of the film. Chiron has reconciled with Kevin and his mother. This redeems all of them.
  • Manly Tears: Juan silently breaks down in the aftermath of Chiron's Armor-Piercing Question. Later, Kevin's apology for his actions as a teenager causes Chiron to shed a tear.
  • Maybe Ever After: Throughout the third section Chiron and Kevin skirt around discussing their teen romance, until Chiron finally admits that he's never touched another man since Kevin. The movie ends with them silently sitting on the bed together, Kevin with his arm around Chiron's shoulder, leaving it unclear whether Kevin has actually returned Chiron's affections or is simply comforting a troubled friend. The original screenplay, however, clears this up by including the beginning of their sexual encounter that night.
  • Meaningful Rename: Juan explains to Little that a man chooses what he's called. As such, as a teen Chiron refuses to be called "Little" anymore, and as an adult takes the name Black.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Juan dies sometime between "Little" and "Chiron".
  • Must Make Amends: Kevin invited Chiron to Miami to apologize for what he did, and to try to offer a better life.
  • Nice Guy:
    • Even though Juan sells drugs, he clearly acts as a caring and loving father figure for Chiron.
    • Teresa, who acts as a mother figure to Chiron when Chiron's actual mother falls short (And she falls short in many ways.)
  • Monochrome Casting: The film has an all-black cast. White extras aren't even seen until the third act.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Paula is crying when admitting she knows Chiron's life is messed up because of her bad parenting. She says he doesn't owe her any love or forgiveness.
  • No Antagonist: Other than the harshness of the setting, there is no primary antagonist in the film; the closest being the kids who bully Chiron.
  • Nurture over Nature: In the whole Nature Versus Nurture debate, Moonlight falls over to the "nurture" side. All the characters live in poverty and deal with drugs and violence throughout their neighborhood, however Chiron doesn't ( at least, not at first) and sticks out like a sore thumb due to his nature and how he dresses and acts. The other characters either deal or do drugs and/or partake in violent activity but it's clear that underneath it all, they're just trying to survive and navigate and they're ultimately decent people (barring Terrel from the second act).
  • Oh, Crap!: Kevin as an adult has this as a dawning reaction when Chiron reveals, without changing his tone, that when he was in juvie, a drug dealer recruited him to run a block when he was released, and he has since become a lord in his own right.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten:
    • Played for Drama. Chiron becomes defined in the legal/educational systems by his single act of striking Terrel over the head with a chair, which is implied to be a direct cause of his occupation as a drug dealer in the third act: people with criminal records have extremely difficult times finding legitimate employment in much of the United States.
    • Chiron is initially cool with Kevin when they reunite about a few decades later, and a bit confused about why the latter wants the former in his life again. He obviously hasn't forgotten the bullying. Kevin has the decency to look guilty about beating up Chiron as a kid, while skirting around the issue. It's not until Kevin apologizes that Chiron starts to soften.
  • Parental Substitute: Juan and Teresa act as surrogate parents to Chiron in his youth, since his mother is a drug addict and his father is out of the picture. The irony of this is noted by Chiron's mother, however — because Juan sells drugs to the community, he's part of why she's a Junkie Parent in the first place.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Terrel goes to such major lengths to harass Chiron for his sexuality including beating him up, that Terrel gets no sympathy when Chiron smashes a chair over him.
  • Peer-Pressured Bully: Terrell coerces Kevin into punching out Chiron, despite the fact that they're long friends and have recently had a homoerotic experience together. In this case it's less "to be popular" and more "to keep a target off his back" because Kevin doesn't want to have that same sadistic bully turn his sights on him.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Kevin beats Chiron per Terrel's demand, which costs him the former's friendship.
  • Period Shaming: The film has an interesting case where the stigma against menstruation is leveraged against a cis male character, Chiron. His bully, Terrel, mockingly says that Chiron "forgot to change his tampon" in the middle of class as a way to demean and emasculate him because he's gay.
  • Rage Breaking Point: After being bullied for years, Chiron finally loses it after Terrel convinces Kevin to beat him up, and then Terrel and his Gang of Bullies given him a further beatdown. After breaking down in the school counselor’s office, Chiron comes in the next day, heads straight for class, picks up a wooden chair, and bashes Terrel unconscious with it.
  • Rousseau Was Right: Overall, Moonlight falls somewhere between this and Humans Are Flawed, but it's probably closer to this. Most of its characters are shown to be fundamentally decent people who are sometimes simply forced to do unpleasant things as a result of their circumstances. Even Paula, who is outright abusive to Chiron in the second act, ultimately becomes a reformed, sincerely repentant person in the third, and it's implied that most of her actions in the second act were consequences of her not being in her right mind. The only completely malicious character with no redeeming qualities at all is Terrel.
  • Show, Don't Tell: The movie is relatively light on dialogue, instead often electing to inform viewers through actions and pictures rather than words. For example, Little's declining homelife isn't explicitly stated, but rather shown by the empty space where his TV used to be (indicating that his mother pawned it for drugs) and him taking a bath by heating water on the stove while his mother is nowhere in sight.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Kevin is the only person Chiron's ever been intimate with, even as an adult. Though it's ambiguous as to whether it's because of this trope or because of Chiron's lingering Gayngst.
  • Slice of Life: The film is a series of vignettes depicting Chiron growing up, with no straightforward plot beyond Chiron's self-realization.
  • Small Role, Big Impact:
    • Juan only appears in roughly a third of the film, but is a huge influence Chiron's maturation into an adult. The fact that Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for the role shows just how big an impact he had on the story.
    • Terrel only appears in the second act with no real characterization beyond "bully" and even less screen time than Juan. He still ends up playing a pivotal role in Chiron's life by forcing Kevin to beat Chiron up, which drives Chiron to bash his head in with a wooden chair. Chiron gets sent to juvie as a result and by the third act has not only become a drug dealer because his criminal record makes it impossible to find legal employment, but also hasn't spoken to Kevin in over a decade.
  • Society Is to Blame: While not explicitly stated, it's heavily implied that Chiron mostly became a drug dealer because he didn't have any other options available to him as a result of his record. In many American states, it's difficult bordering on very nearly impossible for people with criminal convictions to find legitimate employment, so this is Truth in Television. This is also a general theme throughout the film: many people in the criminal underworld are depicted as mostly decent people who simply have few (maybe no) other options to get by. See also Inherent in the System above.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Both films are about a coming-of-age of a boy from his childhood to adulthood, but the two's setting and the production were a polar opposite. Boyhood took 12 years to shoot while Moonlight took a less than a month. The former used the same actor to play a straight middle-class caucasian, while the latter used three actors to play a gay lower-class black man at three stages in his life. The former took place in suburban Austin, Texas while the latter took place in a housing project area of Miami, Florida.
  • Straight Gay: Chiron isn't particularly flamboyant to begin with, but he becomes progressively more straight-passing as he ages into adulthood. As a kid he was instantly pegged as being gay, as an adult, less so.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: Despite the film's bleak subject matter, Chiron comes to a state of self-acceptance and renews his romance with Kevin.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • It's mentioned that Teresa is still alive, and keeps in contact with Chiron. In other movies, she would be enough of a Morality Chain to help him out. Chiron loses her positive influence when he goes to juvie, and she had her own problems after Juan died. He merely tells his mother that Teresa is "fine".
    • Paula has gotten into rehab and cleaned up her life. This also causes her to have a Heel Realization about how she treated her own son while under the influence. Thing is that she only sobered up after Chiron had a stint in the prison system and realized she was a terrible mother. They even laugh about this bitterly when Paula says he can talk to her about his nightmares. For this reason, he refuses to visit her in rehab for a long time, until Kevin invites him to Miami. At one point he threatens to leave when he calls out her Parental Hypocrisy for being a druggie and then judging him for selling the same products, because his suffering as a child wasn't enough to make her stop.
    • When Kevin looks up Chiron and invites him to Miami, he makes small talk, hoping that Chiron's life is okay. He's stunned to learn that Chiron, thanks to having a criminal record which leaves him unable to hold a legitimate job, is a drug dealer. This was after he commented that Chiron had the right idea to own a car because Miami commutes are killer. How else would a convicted felon have a Cool Car?
  • Symbolic Baptism: Juan taking Chiron into the ocean to teach him how to swim, marking the moment when Chiron learns how to become self-reliant. Director Barry Jenkins even described it as "a baptism".
  • Three-Act Structure: Each act of the film depicts Chiron at a different stage in his life — as a child in "I. Little", as a teenager in "II. Chiron", and as an adult in "III. Black."
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert (child), Ashton Sanders (teen), and Trevante Rhodes (adult), while Kevin is played by Jaden Pinter (child), Jharrel Jerome (teen), and André Holland (adult).
  • Title Drop: Juan's story to little Chiron at the beach, which drops the title of both the film and the unpublished play it's based on. As with most title drops it highlights one of the main themes of the film, which is the power of being your own person vs letting other people say who you are for you:
    Juan: This one time, I run by this old... this old lady. I was running, howling. Kinda of a fool, boy. This old lady, she stopped me. She said...[imitates old lady voice] "Running around, catching a lot of light". "In moonlight, black boys look blue". "You're blue". "That's what I'm gonna call you: 'Blue'."
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Kevin's friendship with Terrel doesn't amount to anything good, especially not for Chiron.
  • The Unseen: Teresa isn't seen in "Black," only mentioned in conversation.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Chiron gives Kevin a well-deserved Death Glare for telling him that dealing drugs isn't him. As he aptly points out, Kevin made it a point to not know him. Kevin tries to respond with an Armor-Piercing Question but customers interrupt him. When he comes back, Chiron bluntly asks if Kevin called him just to tell him off.
  • What You Are in the Dark: By the time they are adults, Kevin has a stable job, a child, and previous relationships with women. In short, he has everything he wants, or so it seems, and can fit in with heterosexual norms. Yet Kevin realizes that he still has some mistakes to fix, and invites Chiron to Miami. Chiron is even confused as to why someone who betrayed him wants to see him again and nearly doesn't go.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Kevin angrily tells Chiron that he deserves more than a life dealing drugs.