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"Who is you, Chiron?"
Adult Kevin (Andre Holland)
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Moonlight is a 2016 coming of age drama (and romance) written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.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 the character of Chiron, 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, emotionally manipulative, crack addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), his mother's drug dealer and 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.

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Moonlight was one of the most acclaimed movies of 2016, garnering praise for its direction, writing, acting, music and cinematography. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture (producers Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner), 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 Academy Awards, 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. Moonlight is the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBT-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 Best Picture Oscar. (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 ). It was also awarded the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama.

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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.
  • Affably Evil: Juan, with emphasis on the "affably". He immediately treats Chiron as family, feeding him, giving him shelter when his mother doesn't want him in the house, teaching him how to swim, giving him honest and solid advice concerning his burgeoning sexuality and generally acting as a benevolent father figure that he wouldn't have otherwise. He'd be a straight-up Nice Guy if he wasn't a crack dealer.
  • 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.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: In all three acts, Chiron acts a bit off in a manner that does not go unnoticed by the other characters. Juan and Teresa respond by being kind and supportive, the kids at school respond by bullying him. As an adult he manages to function behind a facade of normalcy but when he sees Kevin he regresses to his awkward self.
  • 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.
  • 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 behaviour 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.
  • 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.
  • The Bully: Terrel constantly harasses and belittles Chiron.
  • Bully Brutality: Terrel is a freaking psychopath and a homophobe. 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.
  • 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.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: While this film completely averts Author Tract, this is arguably an implicit theme: that 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. Even then, this is a Downplayed Trope, since a European-style social safety net, a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice, and more willingness on employers' and the government's parts to help ex-convicts put their lives back on track would help to avert these problems. The film's message could just as easily be interpreted as being something like unrestrained, American-style capitalism is bad, and even here, it's never actually spelled out.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Destructive Romance: After the hazing incident in high school, Chiron and Kevin never see one another again until they're both adults leading different lives in separate states.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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 his personal appearance and mannerisms echo Juan's.
    • Their cars even have warning lights on in similar places on the instrument panel.
  • 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 Gray 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.
  • 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.
  • Junkie Parent: Chiron's mother cares more about drugs than her own son. She's very neglectful and abusive.
  • 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: Averted with Juan, who is a black Cuban. He even 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.
  • Must Make Amends: Kevin invited Chiron to Miami to apologize for what he did, and to try to offer a better life.
  • 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".
  • Never Live It Down: In-Universe, 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.
  • Nice Girl: Teresa, who acts as a mother figure to Chiron when Chiron's actual mother falls short (And she falls short in many ways.)
  • Nice Guy: Even though Juan sells drugs, he clearly acts as a caring and loving father figure for Chiron.
  • 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 vs. 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 Pressure Makes You Evil: Kevin beats Chiron per Terrel's demand, which costs him the former's friendship.
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: In some ways, Moonlight could be considered to do for Miami what The Wire did for Baltimore, but while The Wire is a macroscopic journalist and sociologist's look at a city in its entirety, Moonlight is an intimate character study focusing mainly on one character and his closest friends and relatives. However, the two works address many of the same themes and share similar literary and artistic sensibilities, and a viewer who enjoys one may well enjoy the other.
  • 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.
  • 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 Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, and Trevante Rhodes, while Kevin is played by Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Pinter, and André Holland.
  • 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.
  • Will They or Won't They?: 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.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Kevin angrily tells Chiron that he deserves more than a life dealing drugs.
  • You Bastard!: Arguably an implicit case. As noted above, Terrel is set up to be such a Hate Sink that many audience members have experienced a Catharsis Factor when Chiron finally reaches his Rage Breaking Point and smacks him over the head with a chair. There are reports of audiences cheering the scene. 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.

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