“In moonlight, black boys look blue. You blue, that’s what I’m gon’ call you.” (Moonlight)
2017’s Oscars’ Best Picture film award was won by the all-Black casted movie, Moonlight. It follows a black boy into adulthood in an impoverished Florida city. Director Barry Jenkins’ intention was to shed light on the issues in Moonlight through a dreamlike, immersive experience from the view of the main protagonist, Chiron.
Instead of a typical banal film with a traditional narration, viewers are thrown into the pivotal moments that define him, I: Little, II: Chiron, and III: Black.
Each has a theme of colours that represent a different chapter in the protagonist’s life and how they all differed yet also revolved around the same problem; an already racially marginalised man struggling with his sexuality. The use of many different colouring techniques with shades of blue and pink evoke different stages of emotions for each of the three chapters, such as brutality and intimacy.
This essay discusses the intentions of the movie’s creator, which is then followed by a colour analysis of each of the three chapters.
Barry Jenkins began his colouring journey by choosing the setting: Liberty City, Miami. The city is impoverished and crime-ridden, but it’s decorated with bright pastel homes and lush, green flora. It is what Jenkins calls a “beautiful nightmare.”
His aim was to create tension by juxtaposing the optimistic scenery with the dark, tragic events of the plot. For the details, the visual stimulation came down to technical production, especially the absence of a fill light. A fill light is an extremely popular set tool in the film industry that reduces contrast, however, Jenkins removed it to sculpt and emphasize the beauty of the dark skin of the actors. With the use of DI2 and colour grading, the director was able to create three separate chapters with three distinguishing finishes that complement the story.
The story begins with Chapter I, titled Little after the name the protagonist is given by childhood bullies. This section has a colour finish representative of Fuji film. The colours are warm to show the innocence of Juan and Chiron’s relationship. It starts when Juan removes plywood over a window in which Little is hiding from bullies.
A bright yellow ray of light enters the room to light the darkness. This is a symbol foreshadowing the enlightening impact Juan will have throughout the boy’s life. He shows him kindness and patience, and provides a father figure; something that was otherwise lacking. However, the shirt Juan is wearing in this introduction shows skepticism. It is multicoloured, symbolising Little’s distrust of him; is he friend or foe?
The same effect is used again when we are introduced to his mother, Paula, who is also wearing a multicoloured shirt to represent her multifaceted personality. She has mood swings and outbursts that constantly put Little on edge. He often questions which side his mother will present today.
The presence of the colour lily-white acts as a symbol of trust and innocence. When Juan first meets Little in the abandoned building, the boy is wearing white. When Juan takes him in his home, the walls are in the process of being painted white. This represents the resulting transformation in the drug dealer’s life now that a boy filled with purity has entered it.
Additionally, the furniture and Juan’s clothing are often blue. This is his signature colour and Chiron later begins to associate it with being vulnerable, because this man is the first one who allowed him to be.
Right before the flashing change to the second chapter, we see Little’s mother, Paula, yelling at him from the end of a hallway. There is a pink glow emanating from the room behind her, lighting up her skin and red shirt. The colours are meant to symbolise the convoluted maternal love Paula feels for her son.
She is a crack addict and often works, resulting in an emotional and physical absence. In this scene, Little wears lily-white and is covered by a white sheen that is representative of his innocence. His purity contrasts deeply with his impure surroundings, especially his mother and her aura characterised by the violent colours of dark pink and red.
Chapter II, titled Chiron, is characterised by the teenager’s peers pushing the question of sexuality further and further onto him. He is surrounded by ‘locker room talk,’ and boys bragging about their sexual experiences, causing him to feel further alienated. One of them is a boy named Terell. He is threatening, abusive, and a direct antagonist.
The clothing he wears in his first scene is the same colour as Paula’s clothing in the yelling scene, again contrasting Chiron’s bright flannels and white garments. It symbolises how Chiron does not relate to this hyper masculine, hard, aggressive identity that Terell has, and that he is far from what his city’s ideal man is.
Chiron’s sexuality is made more transparent when he meets Kevin on the beach where they share a cannabis cigarette and the protagonist has his first sexual encounter. Kevin is wearing a white shirt, signifying that he can be trusted because he is also characterised by the innocence of lily-white.
Additionally, the chapter was edited to emulate Agfa stock that adds cyan to highlights, creating a blue hue. In this scene, Chiron is vulnerable and he and Kevin share deep thoughts. One thing remains constant; the moonlight. The steady stream of the bright white moon provides a backdrop of purity behind these confused, marginalised boys experiencing an intimate moment that is defining for their sexuality.
It shimmers over the dark blue water, symbolising change and freedom. In the moonlight, Chiron has a clearer understanding of who he is, but his identity is one that’s not easy to have in a world like his.
Chapter III is named Black after the bulky drug dealer Chiron became. He has been in and out of prison, and is the exact opposite of the small, feeble version we see in the previous two chapters of the film. He didn’t turn to suicide or drug abuse, but instead he killed off aspects that society had deemed weak (emotion and frailty), moulding him into this dissociated version of himself.
This film section is distinguished by a finish that replicates Kodak stock that adds more boldness and shine to images, emphasising the rigidness Black’s facade. In this chapter, we see the presence of the colour blue that is symbolic of Juan who was murdered on the streets.
Both black and blue consistently present themselves, illustrating his suppression of femininity and his true identity, but also his grieving for Juan and attempt to keep his memory around. He followed in his footsteps to become a drug dealer and tries his best to be like him, so now he himself is blue.
One night, he receives a call from Kevin who is again wearing white, depicting him as trustworthy. They meet for dinner where Black is wearing black. It shows that the two men have changed drastically, black and white being opposites but also partners.
The restaurant is decorated with many shades of red, signifying the danger and obstacles between Black accepting who he is, and his current persona. The two men enjoy each other’s company and drive back to Kevin’s home, who changes into a blue shirt, making him blue. Since Chiron subconsciously imitates Juan and thus now identifies with this colour, essentially, Kevin and Black are now the same.
In the final scene of the movie, Little is pictured looking out over the moonlight on the ocean. His voice can be heard talking to Kevin; “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me” (Moonlight), a phrase of vulnerability that penetrates Black’s tough facade. In the scene it is dawn, brightening the view, but little is to be seen other than the dark skin of the boy and the crashing waves.
This deep blue landscape is a reminder of Juan, and Chiron’s moments that have been shared on the beach: Little learning how to swim, Chiron’s first sexual encounter and his homosexual relationship with Kevin. In the moonlight, Chiron is who he truly is, and “black boys look blue” (Moonlight).
In a world where the black body is constantly brutalised, it is cathartic to see Moonlight develop a Black character in all his compassion, pleasures, and losses. Despite an environment filled with drugs, hyper masculinity, and violence, Chiron builds deep emotional bonds that are defining for his identity.
The movie builds an emotional landscape characterised by empathy, sadness, anger, but most of all a fight for identity. The enthralling colours create beautiful imagery, but are never so superfluous as to take away from the focus on the content. Moonlight is not just a blueprint for the way colour symbolism can be used to such a masterful advantage, but for how coming of age stories should be told; through pure, utter humanity.
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