Who Is You, Chiron?
by Caden Mark Gardner
“A child is born and he is given a name. Suddenly, he can see himself. He recognizes his position in the world. For many, this experience, like that of being born, is one of horror.”- Poison (1991) by Todd Haynes
The recognition of one’s difference from the norms of society is a self-revelation that does not always promise or afford that individual a life of contentment. Despite the gains of the LGBTQ communities in law and visibility, coming to terms with one’s self is often the most crucial and key for an individuals reckoning of their sexuality, one that is defined and informed by their environment, their support system, and their access to various outlets that welcome them, or lack thereof.
A film like Todd Haynes’ Poison, the approximation and exclamation point to 1990s American New Queer cinema was about looking back at queer iconography, queer coding, and queer history in the context of the outsider, the criminal made by somebody who had access to the images, the figures, and writings dedicated to informing the resulting film. But some queer people are absent of icons. That can be because they were born into socio-economic situations without access or made a conscious choice to avoid images in order to survive, as they know what they like is not the norm. And in absence of those queer images, perhaps they can create a cocoon that leads to an absence of queer desire.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, based on co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, is a coming-of-age queer African-American film spotlighting a gay experience without such privileges or opportunities to run away to, search, and act out desires. Moonlight shows a character only able to retreat into his mind amid heavy hostility that forces him into repression, or as Mahershala Ali stated in his an awards acceptance speech for this film, “…when you persecute people, they fold into themselves”. Moonlight is about the ‘anatomy of the closet’.
A child is born and he is given the name of Chiron. Actually, he has three names: Little, Chiron, and Black, each of those names representing a section in this film triptych.
Little is the nickname of the scrawny fatherless child in the Miami projects with his drug addict mother, Chiron is his birth name and the period where his awareness of who he is – a gay man – get most realized during his teenage years after a sexual encounter with a childhood friend, and Black is his adopted name, the new name given to him by his childhood friend, as he escapes his roots in Miami for Georgia as a drug dealer, transforming his body from scrawny to muscled and, from what the audience finds out, celibate against any homosexual urges. All of these sections remain in conversation with one another, underlining how one person’s evolution can change and cannot change and how those changes are a series of cause and effect.
Towards the end of the Little section, young Chiron asks his parental figures, Juan and Teresa, what the word ‘faggot’ means. He had an idea, but needed confirmation. He recognizes his place in the world. In the Chiron section, he rebukes the nickname because for Chiron, Little becomes interchangeable with faggot, a name of weakness. He opens up to his childhood friend Kevin about wanting to do things ‘that don’t make sense’ and their romantic sexual encounter happens at the beach. The possibilities begin to bloom from that moment but reality sets in and desires are crushed. Kevin participates in humiliating Chiron at school that includes a devastating game of physical assault. Chiron does attack back in a fury on those same school grounds, becoming Black from that moment onward, born out of the horror in the experience of being targeted for his perceived weakness, linked to his homosexuality. Years later, in the Black section, Kevin, now working at a restaurant, reaches out to Chiron for the first time since school and, without hesitation, Chiron drives back to Miami. Kevin is astounded by the changes he sees in the man he saw as a boy and a young man he desired, genuinely asking, “Who is you, Chiron?”
A gay experience, even one where sex is mostly absent, is still as valid as any other. Chiron’s gay experience points to one that lacked opportunities, positive images, and virtually no support system. He made himself Black for self-preservation, but that armor he built for himself also put him into a hollow shell that denied himself pleasure. The world that he wanted was teased to him but seemed so out of reach. When he meets Kevin again, that shell and armor begins to crack for Chiron. Behind that rough, hyper-masculine exterior, we find that same little boy seen at the start the film, one who was hiding, scared to be caught by the wrong people.
One of Moonlight’s great miracles is that it is informed by existing images and iconography of black life, the coming-of-age film, and the queer film intersecting and blurring film and visual language into something wholly unique. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney use their childhood experiences from growing up in Miami that makes the setting evocative in ways that few American movies have ever treated the city.
Jenkins at once wears his influences on his sleeves but in the image. Having it in an American city where all of the characters are people of color widens the idea of what an art film can be, what an American independent film can be, what a coming-of-age film can be, and what a queer film can be. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis can all be found in Moonlight.
But perhaps the most iconic is the shot of André Holland’s older Kevin, staring into the camera, exhaling smoke from his cigarette. That is Jean Genet. That is Kenneth Anger. But the figure of desire being a handsome African-American man, the product of our African-American lead’s imagination and desires, unlocks a limitless set of new perspectives and possibilities of images for queer people and people of color in the audience to consider. And at the same time, the audience is watching Chiron unlock what he has always wanted but had to lock it away. He is re-learning his desires for Kevin. It makes sense again.
Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance film writer based in Schenectady, NY. He is collaborating with fellow film critic Willow Maclay on the history of depiction and representation of transgender people in film for an upcoming book called Corpses, Fools, & Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema.