Barry Jenkins made Moonlight In 2016. In it, we witness a young man’s struggle to construct a male identity. In the first third of the film, we see him as a young boy nicknamed Little.
Little has no father in his life and his mother is a drug addict. Little is timid, reluctant, and confused. When he meets Juan, an adult male drug dealer who seems to be uncharacteristically patient, Little begins to come out of his shell. The scene where Juan teaches Little to swim is a beautiful and deeply touching moment of intimacy between two people who find intimacy challenging. There are different layers to the scene that address different issues.
On the surface, the scene comments on stereotypes. We have a black child from a broken home and a black drug dealer from the streets. Both of these images are identities foisted on black males especially in the film and the media in general. In contradiction to these stereotypes, the two males are able to be gentle and intimate. They have found a mutually acceptable way to touch each other with compassion and tenderness. In addition, there is the stereotype about black people not being able to swim that is directly addressed and summarily contradicted.
Both race and gender are part of the image we see on screen but the characters are not concerned with these issues while they float in the ocean. They are focused on each other. They are forming the most positive and healing bond a human can experience, trust. Trust is one of the very first things to disappear when we are traumatized. Trauma by its nature is unpredictable and unexpected. It is an event that is worse than what we were prepared to deal with. It challenges our sense of well being and so compromises our ability to form bonds, feel empathy, and trust others.
Juan is not only teaching Little to swim he is teaching him how to trust. At the same time that they are being intimate, Juan is also teaching Little independence. He is teaching him how to stand on his own two feet or in this case how to float and negotiate the powerful ocean.
Visually they form the shape of the renaissance “golden triangle,” as in Michelangelo’s Pieta. There are many such depictions of Mary and Jesus from this time. Although they are more naturalistic than their medieval forbearers they still possess a timeless, iconographic air that points to the universal experience of maternal love. They use the mythical story of Mary and Jesus to pluck the strings of empathy. Again Moonlight bucks the tradition by making both figures male.
The camera is off its tripod and in the water with the two characters. The camera occasionally dips below the water level or has its view momentarily obscured by a small wave contributing to the feeling that we are there with them in the ocean. We can feel the force of the water as the camera steadies itself against the waves.
There is the symbolism of baptism as well. It is not a religious scene but it references the same reverence and warmth that such ceremonies are meant to embody. Baptisms are also the time when a god-parent is established. Juan is being initiated as Little’s guide.
Symbolism aside the scene is simply emotionally engrossing. Taken at face value it is a powerful depiction of two people coming together. Moonlight manages to touch on many important themes but mostly it is a deeply, human, drama, and a nuanced portrait of a boy finding his.
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