Moonlight: How Parallel and Contrast Drives Character Development

Image result for MOONLIGHT

By Paul Chang

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a cinematic masterpiece in many critically acclaimed ways: it masterfully uses color and color motifs to drive the story; it uses music and silence at important junctions to convey the gravity of the situation; it looks at themes of identity and masculinity through viewpoints that are uncommon to Hollywood films, and so forth.  One aspect of Moonlight in particular stands out in its effectiveness and ability to convey messages and foster character development.  Jenkins purposefully includes multiple parallels that can be seen in the film, driven by both audio and visual components.  These parallels effectively nudge the viewer to call back to previous scenes which contain similar components.  At the same time, the differences between the parallels form strong contrasts and induce the viewer to consider what might have changed between the first and second scenes.  This drives development and character growth.  These parallels are both visual – expressed through framing, camera movement, and setting, and auditory – expressed through dialogue, silence, or musical components.  By invoking viewers’ callbacks to previous scenes, Jenkins induces comparisons between the scenes that help develop the characters over the course of the film.

The first notable use of parallel in the film is between the opening scene when Juan first shows up to check in on the dealers, and when he realizes that Chiron’s mother is buying from him.  Both scenes take place in the same street/alleyway where Juan’s dealers sell drugs.  Additionally, both scenes begin the same way – the camera shows Juan’s car pulling up to the curb and parking and follows Juan’s movement as he talks to the same dealer in both scenes.  The similarities in the setting and camera movement of both scenes hints at an underlying connection between the two scenes.  It is not just the parallels that these scenes draw, however, that is of interest to the viewer.  In fact, the parallels emphasize the differences between the two scenes.  The way that the first scene develops, and the context that is given to the viewer, is not at all like the second scene.  At the beginning, the camera revolves around three players – Juan, the dealer, and the potential customer.  It swivels around the latter two before finally centering its focus on Juan, almost like two smaller planets orbiting a bigger planet.

When the camera finally settles down, Juan is the main focus in the center of the camera before the next scene begins.  Beyond simply camera movements, Juan’s interactions indicate that he is an important figure, almost as a benevolent leader of sorts.  The way that the customer pleads with Juan and the respect shown by the dealer towards Juan both indicate that Juan is a central figure who commands attention and respect.   In essence, the first scene paints Juan as a protagonist, through the way that the camera moves to accentuate his importance and Juan’s interactions.  These two aspects change significantly in the scene where Juan finds Chiron’s mother, Paula, smoking crack in the car.  Faced with the realization that he is responsible for the struggles of someone he knows personally, Juan appears to exhibit brash and panicking behaviors for the first time in the film.

Juan: “What’s wrong with you?”

Paula: “Who the hell do you think you is?”

Paula: “So you gon’ raise my son now? You gon’ raise my son? You going to? You ain’t shit.”

While the first scene painted Juan as a calm, collected leader, the second renders him defensive and disoriented.  The camera movement that captures Juan and Paula’s interaction further emphasizes the He displays aggression for the first noticeable time and appears caught off guard.  Additionally, Paula is the first person to talk to Juan in a disrespectful manner, thus marking an important breaking point in character development.  The interaction doesn’t continue to paint Juan as a kind, intelligent leader who just so happens to sell drugs.  Instead, it pivots to a depiction of Juan that is entirely human, who is on equal moral footing with Paula and is indirectly guilty for the addictions of many.  Juan is stripped of his crown in front of many of his dealers, which embarrasses him in ways not previously seen in the film.

Juan: “Fuck y’all lookin’ at?”

Moreover, the way that the camera moves and chooses to focus on certain characters is markedly different between the two scenes.  Whereas the first scene was filmed in a way that centered its focus on Juan, the second splits time between Juan and Paula, and even ignores Juan for a moment, choosing instead to focus on Paula’s reactions.  Once again, Juan is reduced to a mere mortal with flaws and insecurities, whose role as a drug dealer has harmed the lives of many, including Chiron’s mother.  The key differences in camera movement between these two scenes serve to illustrate the true nature of Juan’s character, both in relation to Chiron and in general.  Thus, the parallels that one draws from the beginning of the first and second scenes only serve to emphasize the viewers’ key realization about Juan.

Another example of the usefulness of parallel in Moonlight is a key musical choice.  The same strings-heavy piece plays in two pivotal scenes: first, when Juan teaches Chiron to swim, and second, when Paula gets home from her encounter with Juan and screams at Chiron.  The strings piece itself is rather jarring – it is characterized by rapid notes in the same patterns and repeated in different keys.  The lower patterns from the cello intertwine with the violin to create a musical background that fosters tension and anxiety in the audience.  Once again, the similarities between these two scenes only serve to accentuate the differences in a way that fosters character development.  This piece serves different purposes across the two scenes – in the first, it provides a backdrop to a positive experience, and in the second, it quite literally takes over the scene as a soundtrack of anger and resentment.  When Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim, he puts his hand under Chiron’s head and helps him float so that he will not be scared of the water.  He also talks Chiron through the entire process and acts as physical and emotional support.  Though the music is strong and noticeable, it takes a backseat to Juan’s gentle baritone voice and blends in with the rhythmic sounds of the water.

Juan: “I got you… I think we got a swimmer.”

This is one of the few scenes of innocence and happiness that we see young Chiron enjoy.  As such, the music has its significance tied to the positive character developments of Chiron and Juan.  Though the music seems a bit out of place, it is so unique and recognizable that the viewer is able to recognize the piece quickly from previous encounters.  Indeed, the piece is used in a little over ten minutes after the first scene takes place.  This time, however, it is tied to feelings of anger and resentment.  The music starts as Paula pulls away from the curb, leaving Juan behind in a cloud of confusion and remorse.  It then starts intensifying in the same manner as before, only this time the music drowns out all other sound.  As Paula starts to scream at Chiron, the audience hears only the overpowering sound of frenzied strings.  It is particularly ironic that Paula screams: “Do you hear me?” as Chiron stares blankly at her.

The same piece of music thus paints very different realities that correspond to the shifting developments in the film.  Whereas Juan and Chiron can enjoy innocent moments together at the beginning of the film, the realization that Juan is the source of Paula’s addiction fundamentally shocks the equilibrium beyond repair.  We also see that Paula and Chiron begin to undergo drastic changes in this scene alone.  Paula displays outward aggression and anger towards Chiron for the first time in this crucial sequence, perhaps because she associates him with Juan.   Consequently, her parenting methods are presented in stark contrast with Juan.  While Juan is able to break down Chiron’s apprehension to a new experience with words and physical actions, Paula is unable to break through Chiron’s psychological wall as embodied by the all-consuming nature of music in this scene.  Chiron also undergoes a transformation, as the viewer gets a glimpse of how Chiron copes with trauma and anger by tuning the world out.  Though Chiron is silent in both scenes, he interacts very differently with the two adult figures in his life, further accentuating the distorted ties that Chiron has with parental figures in the film.  The musical similarities thus connect the two scenes and nudge viewers to examine the key character developments more closely.

Finally, the parallels between Chiron and Juan, especially in their choice of car décor and in the ways that the camera is positioned to focus on Chiron and Juan, are striking and serve to accentuate Chiron’s development as a person.  In the first scene depicting Juan, he pulls up to the curb with a clear gold crown on his dashboard.  Later in the film, we see that Chiron has the very same gold crown on his dashboard as the third act begins.

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crown 2.PNG

This unmistakable parallel between Chiron and Juan signifies Juan’s influence on Chiron and immediately invites the viewer to consider how or why Chiron followed in Juan’s footsteps.  In addition, there are key shots that illustrate the parallels between Juan and Chiron as an adult.  In the shot of Juan and Chiron driving back from the diner, the camera focuses on Juan but is positioned closer to Chiron, where the front right window would be.  The camera is placed in a similar place when the third act starts, in the scene where Chiron meets another drug dealer.

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The similarities in filmography and character choices invite parallels between Chiron and Juan.  The key difference here is that the viewers know information about Juan by the second shot that they did not know when viewing the first scene.  Hence, the assumptions made by the viewer about Juan and Chiron’s personalities and character change dramatically in the interim between the two scenes.  As such, the complexity of Chiron’s decision to at least modify parts of his life after Juan’s attains its gravity through the juxtaposition of circumstances surrounding the two similar shots.  While Juan and Chiron are relatively happy and unburdened at the beginning, the third act finds Juan no longer alive and Chiron with heavy emotional baggage.  The innocence and paternal nature of the relationship in the first scene is replaced by a strictly business partnership in the second scene.  By drawing parallels between the two scenes, Jenkins further highlights the differences in circumstance, and reminds the viewer of the character development undergone between the two parallel shots.  As such, Jenkins’ masterful use of parallel and contrast in Moonlight gives his characters depth and invites viewers to make connections in ways that enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the film.


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