“In moonlight Black boys look blue.” So Juan tells nine year-old Chiron, aka “Little,” as they sit side by side on a breezy Miami beach midway through the first act of Barry Jenkins’ exquisite film Moonlight. Juan, we learn, first encountered these words in the metadiegetic world of his Afro-Cuban childhood when, during an ordinary night of boyish amusement, he had found himself called—miscalled—“Blue” by an elderly stranger, in whose assertoric gaze he is fixed to and by a name made available by the routine scenography of epidermalization. Refusing to accept the name, along with the racializing order that sustains it, Juan limns the exigencies and the intimacies of life lived in the Black diaspora, where the meanings and meetings of race and skin, the chromatic and the epidermal congeal in and through a calcified color technics of (un)naming, even as, in Juan’s summation, such meanings and meetings can never (only) be determined from without.
This, of course, is a lesson that Chiron himself is already learning. After all, the joy that he harbors as he learns to swim is, if nothing else, a studied refusal of the generic definitions of what it looks to feel and feels to look black and blue. Still, Chiron listens carefully, responding to Juan with his practiced signature quiet, a strategy of concealment that announces, even as it remains ultimately irreducible to, a sign of the boy-child’s gayness. For Moonlight never explains Chiron’s quiet. In so doing, it refuses a dominant diagnostic imagination that seeks to surveil, interpret, regulate, terrorize the vagaries of Black life.
Here, between story and silence; between Juan and Chiron; between the harsh, exterior gaze of the world and the cultivation of a relation of interiority between them, emerges a powerful syntax of cinematic Blackness staged in formal rebellion against the long history of photochemical white supremacy. Sidestepping the artificial color aesthetics of classical Hollywood, and the ample use of powder upon which it depends, Moonlight makes critical use of natural light and oil sheen to illuminate, indeed, accentuate Blackness, the film’s Black characters, and the color black. It does so not as a compensatory defense against a cinematic history of Black characters visually dispossessed of characterological interiority, but instead to linger deeply in the terrible beauty that lives at the heart of Chiron’s question: “Is your name Blue?”