How do we become?
Are we puzzles? Do we hold a picture of who we are from birth, with that picture being revealed a little more day by day, piece by piece?
Are we clay? Are we shaped and molded and fashioned by age and experience, until we become something we never would’ve guessed?
Are we both?
Chiron was born into Miami’s mean streets. His mother is a crack addict. His father is nowhere. They call him Little, and he is. He’s a quiet boy in a loud world. He’s soft in a place of hard. He’s different: Everyone sees it.
Little’s an easy target. So it’s best to run. His feet hit asphalt so hot you can almost see it steam. He races through weeds, weaving ’round tires and boxes, his pursuers pounding after him.
He dives into a derelict apartment building, trying door after door until one opens. He skids in, slams and locks the door. Kids pound on the other side, hammering hard and furious. And then it stops. For a moment, Little has a chance to take stock of the deserted ruin he’s in—the trash, the dust, the vials that once held drugs that promised to whisk you away for an hour until they stole you away for good.
And then, a knock.
Hands at the plywood in the window, tearing it down.
A man steps through, skullcap on his head, diamonds in his ears. A tough man. But quiet, too.
“I’m about to get something to eat,” he tells Little. “You’re welcome to join me if you want.”
Little doesn’t speak, but he goes with the man. The man eats his food in silence. Little eats dinner, too, inhaling the food at the man’s girlfriend’s house. Little begins to talk. But he won’t say where he lives. He doesn’t say until the next morning.
The man takes the boy home. Little’s mother, suspicious, eyes the man up and down. “And who is you?” she says, wrapping her boy in her arms.
“Nobody,” he says. A drug-dealing nobody that nobody’d trust with their kids.
But that doesn’t stop Little. He shows up to the man’s house again. And again. The man feeds him. Talks to him. Teaches him how to swim.
Then one night as the man talks to one of his dealers, he sees a couple in a car about half a block away, lighting up and using his product. That’s advertising he doesn’t need, so he storms over to the car to put a stop to it.
It’s Little’s mother. He’s horrified that she’s an addict. Ashamed that he’s a reason why. He tells her to go home.
“So you gonna raise my son now?” She thunders. “You gonna tell him why the boys kick his a– all the time?”
How do we become? Are we puzzle or clay? Both, I imagine. But sometimes it seems we’re made of wounds—seeping, scabbed, scarred—as we look for ways to make the pain to go away.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Moonlight‘s positive elements are difficult to address because of this film’s complex, gritty context. There are no real heroes here; just lives lived imperfectly.
But in some of those imperfect lives, we glimpse moments of grace, kindness and even redemption. The drug-dealing man from the introduction (whose given name is Juan, though he calls himself Blue) truly cares about Little’s well-being, and he serves for a time as a much-needed father figure. Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, proves to be an even better avenue of support. As the boy Little becomes the teen Chiron (the movie is separated into chapters titled by whatever name Chiron is going by at the moment), Teresa allows him to sleep in his spare bedroom whenever he can’t sleep in his own home. Chiron’s only real friend, Kevin, gives him the support he needs to get through the school day. And Chiron himself occasionally demonstrates kindness to his mother—a woman who, frankly, doesn’t deserve it.
She eventually understands that she wasn’t the mother Chiron needed. When Chiron becomes the adult Black, she’s living in a drug rehab clinic, staying out of trouble and helping others stay clean. She apologizes to Black for the way she raised him. “You don’t gotta love me,” she tells him. “But you gotta know that I love you.”
Juan, who wears a cross around his neck, tells one of his dealers that he’ll be praying for the man’s grandmother.
When Little asks Juan if he (Little) might be gay, Juan tells him, “You don’t gotta know right now. Not yet.” But even before Little hits puberty, everyone around him seems to suspect it. His stoned mother mocks him for the way he walks. It’s suggested that he’s called a variety of slurs at school. He seems happiest in dance class—the movie bowing to a bit of stereotype here.
The mocking doesn’t stop when Chiron becomes a teen. Tormenters taunt him in class for needing a “tampon,” laugh at his too-tight pants (which are only tight in comparison to the saggy, baggy fashion of the day) and openly call him “gay.” Chiron’s friend Kevin doesn’t seem to hear or care, and he openly and crassly talks about his own sexual experiences with girls at school. Chiron dreams about seeing Kevin engaged in sex with a girl in a scene with explicit motions and sounds. (We see Kevin’s underwear from behind.)
Kevin and Chiron wind up sitting by the ocean early one morning. They kiss, and audiences see Kevin unbuckle Chiron’s belt. The camera moves to watch the couple from behind. We don’t see anything explicit, but it’s clear that Kevin manually stimulates Chiron. (We hear his gasping.)
A decade later, Chiron—now calling himself Black—returns to Miami to visit Kevin. Sexual tension, conveyed in glances and the occasional lingering touch, underlies most of the visit. Black admits that Kevin’s the only man who ever “touched” him in that way, and he suggests that he’s never been with anyone—male or female—since that encounter. They don’t kiss, but Black does rest his head on Kevin’s chest and shoulder.
As children, Little, Kevin and some other kids compare penis sizes. (Nothing is shown.) Little and Kevin wrestle, a scene that seems to cross over into something more than roughhousing.
Chiron’s mother sometimes tells him that he needs to vacate the apartment because she plans to have company. One of Black’s “employees” talks about his sexual escapades and asks Black where he can pick up women (using more crass terminology). We see men without shirts and women wearing revealing tops. Kevin, we learn, got married and then divorced, but he loves the child that came of the union.
As a teen, Chiron is plagued by bullies. The bully ringleader forces Kevin (who was particularly adept as a kid at knocking others down) to beat Chiron: Kevin hits Chiron several times in the face and begs him to stay down. Chiron keeps getting up, though. Blood seeps and spurts from his mouth. Eventually other kids get involved, kicking a prone Chiron mercilessly. Chiron, in the principal’s office, is a mass of cuts: Blood-drenched tissue is stuffed in his nose and butterfly bandages hold together a severe cut on his forehead. He later sinks his bleeding face in a sink full of ice water.
The next day, Chiron comes in late to class, picks up a chair and smashes it over the head of the bully. He hits the dazed boy several more times before he’s finally pulled away.
As a teen, Chiron is perhaps suicidal. Jose and Black both carry guns.
About 25 f-words and another 30 s-words. We hear the n-word nearly 40 times, including uses in songs played in the background. Characters also say “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “f-ggot.”
Both Juan and Black (20 years later) sell drugs. Neither seems to take them. For both, it’s a business. But they understand what a terrible business it is. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Little asks Juan if he sells drugs to his mother: When Juan admits he has, Little silently walks out of the room, leaving Juan to weep alone.
We see the tragic toll drug use takes on Chiron’s mother. When we first meet her, she seems more mother than addict, encouraging her boy to read and to stay away from bad influences like Juan. But next time Juan drops Little off, she’s hurriedly clearing drug paraphernalia off a table, then getting high in the street. By the time Chiron’s a teen, Mom is demanding money from her boy for a hit. “I ain’t feeling good,” she says. “I need something to help me out.” She begins to yell at him, reaching into his pockets until she finds the cash she’s looking for. When Chiron comes home next, his mother has passed out on the couch, partly waking up when Chiron puts a blanket over her.
Juan drinks a beer. Teresa jokingly offers Chiron a glass of gin. Kevin offers Chiron a joint, which he smokes. (He explains to Kevin that his mother has lots of the stuff around the house.) About 10 years later, Kevin insists that Black (adult Chiron) drink wine with him, even though Black protests that he doesn’t drink. Still, when the wine is served, Black downs it in one swallow. Kevin jokes later that they downed three bottles of vino.
Both Chiron and Kevin are eventually sent away—the former to a juvenile detention center, the latter to prison. Little tells Jose that he “hates” his mom. “I bet you do,” Juan says. “I hated my mom too. Miss her like h— now, though.”
I think there’s the basis for a movie in all of our lives, really—moments in our childhood that impacted us deeply, that made us, for better or worse, who we are today. And the early part of Little’s story felt—again, for better or worse—familiar.
I wasn’t a particularly athletic kid. I loved to read. I was pretty soft-spoken. And for a couple of elementary school years, a few classmates mocked me for being “gay” (using other slurs I can’t repeat here). I remember running from bullies. I’d duck into stores and hide.
I don’t want to be overly dramatic: My childhood was not full of the sort of the constant torment that Little experiences here. But it had its moments. And I still remember the fear and shame and bewilderment I felt. The anger I felt toward myself because I was “different” somehow in a way I didn’t know and couldn’t seem to do anything about. I wasn’t gay, but there was something in me that belied that. It was like normalcy was a secret club that I didn’t know the password to, and I would’ve done almost anything to be normal.
Moonlight is a well-made movie with an obvious agenda. Chiron, the film suggests, suffered mightily due to his sexual inclinations. Thus, the movie says, Chiron’s life would’ve been so much better had his world been more accepting.
Christians who hold the Bible as the Word of God, of course, can’t go where the movie would like to push us. We can’t applaud where Chiron goes. The life of a Christian is a paradox—one of fullness and vitality, but one filled with self-sacrifice and denial: We accept limitations. We delay or reject our own whims and desires. When we reflect Christ at our best, we’re living for others, not ourselves. And sometimes that’s difficult. As such, Moonlight, as mesmerizing as the movie is, isn’t just filled with problematic content: It gives us a message counter to what we believe God tells us.
But in Chiron’s story, there’s a lesson for us, too. See, when we talk about homosexuality, we’re not just talking about the issue. We’re talking about people—people with their own stories, their own wellsprings of hope and pain. And as we all try to grapple with the complexity of human sexuality, I wonder whether we sometimes forget the intrinsic humanity in play. Whether, like Little’s and my tormenters, we sometimes try to shame the difference out of people. If we make them feel bad enough, they will change.
I don’t claim to be an expert on human sexuality, and I don’t know the most effective way for the Church to address it. But I am pretty sure that shame ain’t it.
But I do believe this: God created each of us for a reason. Somewhere in us, there’s an image of what we could be, and of what God wants us to be. We’re shaped, day by day, by our experiences and our decisions. We’re distorted by our scars. And as Christians, I think we should ideally look to heal those scars—with equal measures of love and truth—and not needlessly create new ones.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.