Barry Jenkins has become a household name with the release of his second feature film. The screenwriter and director of the stunning Moonlight decided three different actors should portray the three stages of central character Chiron’s life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Jenkins feels the actors’ eyes are similar enough to each other that the spirit of the character will translate to audiences without causing much distraction. One of Chiron’s defining characteristics is his bowed head. Fear and rage and shame constantly bubble behind those lowered eyes. His body language speaks volumes for a character who struggles expressing himself with words. How Chiron carries himself throughout the film illustrates his growth as he learns to fit in his own skin.
We meet the youngest Chiron (aka “Little”) running from a group of kids chasing him home. He seeks refuge in an abandoned building and is found by a neighborhood drug dealer, Juan, who later becomes a surrogate father. But throughout their time seated at the table of a nearby restaurant, and later in Juan’s home, Chiron’s eyes are aimed at his plate. In high school, Chiron–now insisting to be called by his given name–continues to have trouble with his classmates. He generally walks the halls alone, shoulders hunched, looking at his feet. Teresa, Juan’s partner and the matriarch of Chiron’s second home, at one point lifts his chin, reinforcing that he shed any shame, especially while under her roof. It’s no easy task for the confused teenager. Adult Chiron, who as adopted the moniker, “Black,” is more sure of himself, but it’s more facade than confidence. No one can see through the veneer easier than Kevin, Chiron’s only friend.
The moment that holds the most weight in this film is in the second to last scene. Kevin is pressing Chiron on his current image, a far cry from what he expected since high school: platinum fronts in his mouth, a flashy muscle car, and a prison yard physique. It’s clear that Kevin is the only person who ever understood Chiron’s personal struggles. When he finally lets his guard down, he speaks the first full truth about himself since running for his life in the first moments of the film. Not only is his confession to Kevin one of the most important admissions, but we see him stand up straight and lift his chin for the first time. On his own. Kevin smiles knowingly, giving Chiron confidence to be himself and finally shed his shame.
Listen to the team talk about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.