Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight: A Masterclass in Expressive Camerawork


by Jacob Benigeri

Moonlight is a film directed by Barry Jenkins and is based off the play In Moonlight Black Boys look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight was both a critical and a commercial success, grossing $65.2 Million and winning three Academy Awards. Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young sensitive African American, who feels pressured to conform to the hyper masculine norms in his Miami environment by hiding his sexuality and personality. The film is divided in three chapters, Little, Chiron, and Black. The three chapters show the how Chiron evolves as a character, and does so effectively by casting three different actors for each stage of his life. Little is about the lost young boy who deals with other kids who bully him, Chiron is predominantly about him dealing with his mother’s addiction and discovering more about his sexuality, and finally Black is where Chiron has completely repressed his real self and portrays himself in a hardened, stereotypical gangster facade. The actor, Trevante Rhodes, who plays adult Chiron summed up one of the most important points of this film in an interview when he said “films like this, allow you to understand that life is a growing process and it’s important to understand that that’s okay.” The film is predominantly about growth and Chiron’s struggles with being different, how he becomes okay with who he is.

The first scene begins with the introduction of Mahrshala Ali’s character, Juan, the way the camera swirls around him shows him to be calm, respected, and important. This was really  well contrasted by next scene where we’re introduced to Chiron by a shaky cam shot of him running away, after running away he hides in a room where we the audience as a camera are in the same position as him. We hear and see him and everything around him, as the audience we see him at the same time we hear the bullies try to break into the room he’s trapped in and the  overpowering sound of the bullies combined with the shot of Chiron covering his ears the audience can empathize with how trapped and afraid Chiron is. Throughout the film, every single shot has an intention to it, whether it wants to create an emotion, or demonstrate a relationship. In the scene with Juan and Teressa at the dinner table, the slow camera pan’s between them shows a warmth and connection, the same is done in the swimming scene between Juan and Chiron to show a kind of mentoring relationship between them. During the entire film Barry Jenkins uses shots from behind which stop the audience’s ability to read  Chiron and understand what he’s feeling/thinking. The film also uses many circular shots to show some kind of group, this is in order to then create a separate shot which shows Chiron to  be excluded, this is first scene where the young boys are playing in the field. It should be noted that this is the scene where Chiron meets Kevin, his friend and future romantic interest. The circular shot comes back in the scene where Chiron’s bully, Tyrell pressures Kevin into  knocking our Chiron. The shot creates a menacing visual of Tyrell and the crowd which is looking at Kevin, and expecting him to punch Chiron. The next scene is what happens after, where Chiron gets his revenge on Tyrell.

Chiron is initially shot  from the back, which creates the aforementioned feeling of wanting to know what his facial expression is. Eventually we see him from the front where we can better see his fast walk, angry expression, and beat up face. This the transitions to a close up where he’s looking down and showing some doubts. Finally, it culminates in him entering his class and breaking a chair  on Tyrell’s back. 

The most iconic use of sound and camera in the entire movie is the disjointed feeling he creates when the sound and picture don’t match. I found this to be especially powerful in the scene below.

The way that the line “I guess you gettin’ grown” is only there in audio and you never actually see the actress say it shows not only how high his mother is, but also her lack of attention for her son. Barry Jenkins chose that line specifically because it shows that Chiron’s mom is completely oblivious to her son growing up and anything going on in his life. Furthermore, the way the camera frame witches from Chiron to his mom in this exchange shows Chiron knows exactly what his mother is on, and the disappointment he has for mis own mother. As this scene progresses we see the degradation of Chiron’s mother from her elated high to panic and  abuse in forcefully taking money from her own son. The only time when we see the sound disjointed from the picture is when Kevin and Chiron reunite as adults, this time the effect is done show how surreal this moment is for Chiron. 

Throughout the film classical music is used to show Chiron’s inner feelings, and to demonstrate how at odds he is with environment in which we often hear hip-hop being plaid which amplifies this contrast. One of the best scenes to show the use of music is when Paula is yelling at young Chiron and the the sound disappears and all we hear is the music, showing his disconnect from his own reality.

Jenkins hast strayed from the norms of what is expected from a story about a poor Black man in a neighborhood’s life. It’s not with hip-hop music, it’s with classical, and a very artistic and expressive use of camera. I’d like to end this post with a quote from the director himself, where he talks about what his intentions were with this movie when he was asked why he opened the movie with Boris Gardiner’s “Every N*gger Is a Star.”

“I’d never heard of Gardiner before Kendrick’s album. I looked into it and realized it was an album unto itself, for an ultra-obscure Blaxploitation film that IMDB doesn’t even know about. This album and movie were made as a piece of propaganda, meant to display how amazing black people are. I wanted to stamp on our film that this is going to be a very aggressive, radicalized depiction of my version of a black experience where I grew up. It’s not gonna code-switch, we’re not going to make concessions. Instead of bringing the hood to the art house, it’s bringing art house to the hood. Starting with Boris Gardiner is planting the flag.” – Barry Jenkins

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