The Middle of the World

Paper by Kathrina Andrzejewski.

The critically acclaimed film Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins, is a coming of age story of an African American man who is dealing with coming to terms with his reality in an environment that might not accept him for who he truly is. It’s split into three chapters or phases; the first is him going through childhood, the second is his adolescence, and finally, his adulthood. Throughout the film we see many elements of mise-en-scene, such as the camera work and audio, that help beautifully portray the men in the film as masculine yet vulnerable, which is very raw and thought provoking. Barry Jenkins analyzes the internalized stereotypes that African Americans are masculine, heterosexual, and the comform to the deprivation of certain activities. Through the specific scene where his only father figure, Juan, teaches him how to swim in such an emotional and vulnerable space as the ocean, Chiron tackles those stereotypes by being able to find comfort within himself, in being himself unapologetically and vulnerably in that moment.

The scene at the ocean was such a pivotal moment for Chiron, as it is the closest that he has ever gotten to physical expressions of warmth during his whole childhood. In the beginning of the scene Chiron is learning how to swim with Juan, the only father figure he had in his life, as his teacher. The camera captured realistic film, as we see the crystalline blue water both above and below the surface in combination with the natural lighting that provoked a dream like reality. This scene was executed masterfully with the intentions of showing tensity from Chiron’s end as Juan was holding him up in the water. Instead of having the camera still and shooting at both of them which would be too simplistic of bonding and trustworthy, the camera bobs around in the ocean with the water lapping against it. This camerawork and movement gives a whole different meaning to the scene, as viewers feel his struggle of attempting to stay above the water so he does not drown, almost as if we are trying to stay afloat with him. Seeing Juan holding him in the water gives the image of him being a surrogate parent. Juan then realizes that Chiron is not that sheltered as he comes off to be especially when being forced to open up emotionally, he just needs to be in a space where he’s able to be vulnerable and most importantly himself. Especially since he’s dealt with the stereotypes of needing to be tough at a very young age, he seems like he finally feels comfortable being vulnerable and gentle with someone else. The water helps play a significant role in Chiron’s life, it can be resembled as a baptism and renewal. With the way that the water washes over him and as his body floats in the water almost as if it was washing away his past, it initiates him into a new version of himself. The ocean itself is perfect for that as it is such a big place, just as we see Earth, and there we observe Chiron using that as a way to find his true self. This scene gave him the opportunity to deal with the confusion of affection from a man, as he is able to let go of that fear which rooted from an insecurity that other boys have been taunting him about, and ultimately how being a certain sexuality is a big part in meeting the standards of masculinity. All of the sounds in the scene; the dialogue, score, and the waves, create the perfect mixture for this significant moment in his life. With the song, the orchestra warms up slowly as he’s being held in the water. It speeds up slowly, but the high notes were struck right as he was swimming alone without Juan. The sound is almost stressful as it is intense, but it gives off a feeling of desperation. The song slows down and fades away and all we’re left with is the sound of the waves as he’s staying perfectly afloat.

The guidance from Juan he’s receiving in the water, is guidance he can take wherever else in life as Juan is basically making him stronger for other things he will have to deal with in life as he gets older. They both go to sit down after being in the water, and Juan relays an old memory to him of a lady who once had told him on the beach that “in the moonlight, black boys look blue!” The color blue serves as symbolism for one’s true identity because we only see the characters being their truest selves when under the blue tones. During this part of the scene, the camera pans smoothly between both of the characters instead of constant jump cuts to the character who is speaking. This smooth movement calls attention to the warmth and connection that is shared between them both in this heart-to-heart moment. He also tells Chiron “at some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be,” and this is very important for him to hear since he did not really have any wise figure in his life. He’s been growing up trying to listen to everything that everyone was telling him to be. With the kids at school, he was being called homophobic slurs, which he even questioned Juan what certain words he was called were meant. Chiron did not have a safe space with his home being a place full of neglect and emotional absence. Juan had stepped in and taken him in, as Chiron’s mother is a drug addict who forces him to give her money. He knows the path that this could potentially lead the young boy to, so he guides him down a different path.

This film takes place in Liberty Square in Miami, a tarnished area where there is a lack of resources that highly influence those who live there. In Kenneth Chan’s article “The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the Nineties,’’ the idea that environment affects one’s outcome, can be backed up by how Chiron grew up. Although Juan’s guidance will forever be with Chiron, he was not able to keep him on the right path anymore as he was in his adulthood. Chan states that “the ghetto, the hood, and the housing projects are ultimately racist spatial constructions intended as physical and psychological barriers to keep underclass blacks in and to contain the drug-related turf wars and violence within this communal space” (44). Since their environment doesn’t have the same resources as a predominantly white area would have, crime will remain the outcome and the cycle will never end. Juan knows this, and thus the reason why he mentions to Chiron during the ocean scene “at some point you got to decide for yourself who you gonna be.” Juan does not want him to grow up and get in that mix, especially since his mother is clearly unwell and on drugs constantly. Space is truly a barrier for them, and it’s what keeps them trapped in a sense.

This scene was truly one that broke several stereotypes, but one that is not spoken about much, is the fact that he was able to learn how to swim especially in an area where the opportunity might not be easily presented. Historically, African Americans have been deprived of learning how to swim. Racial tensions brought violence into the community, and denied them participation in such recreational activities. Cassandra Phoenix’s article, “Toward a Critical Understanding of Race and Coastal Blue Space in Greater Miami,” does a study on discrimination of African Americans in blue space, or areas close to the water. Coincidentally, she had done the study in Liberty City, which is the same place the film takes place in. After asking those in the community what the ocean meant to them, they said that visiting beaches did not really occur to them. This could be for the reason that they were usually seen ‘out of place’often racially profiled to be suspicious, while “white (wealthy) bodies are designated as being ‘the natural’ occupants of these spaces” (Phoenix 8). It also goes into the history of why families avoided the water due to lots of divisions over the decades as “unconscious consumption of seaside leisure actually stabilised these racial discourses, reinforcing the broader racialization of seaside and coastal spaces” (Phoenix 132). Throughout history they were silently taught to not go near the water due to racial divisions and thus a fear arises within the community due to violence. The fear of drowning when so many have and the fear of water itself. Although there were some social victories, a great amount of the African American population today cannot swim or have a fear of the water. Ultimately, the swimming scene not only tears down the stereotype that men have to be masculine by avoiding male touch, but also the stereotype of not being able to swim. Going in the water and relaxing is showing great vulnerability, despite the violence it could bring, which is courageous.

Throughout all of the phases in Chiron’s life, he had struggled with his sexuality, masculinity, and the lack of resources. In return, he learns pain, trust, and sensibility as he takes the risk of being hurt emotionally, while he lets in affection for once. Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight (2016), successfully portrays the hardships that shape his life into adulthood.

Works Cited
Chan, Kenneth. “The Construction of Black Male Identity in Black Action Films of the
Nineties.” Cinema Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, [University of Texas Press, Society for Cinema
& Media Studies], 1998, pp. 35–48,
Phoenix, Cassandra, et al. “Segregation and the Sea: Toward a Critical Understanding of Race
and Coastal Blue Space in Greater Miami.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, vol. 45, no. 2, 2020, pp. 115–37. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0193723520950536.

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