The Real Ones: An Annotated Exploration of ‘Moonlight’ via Frank Ocean’s “Nikes”

The parallels between two of 2016's most outstanding works of art, and what they might mean for the rest of the year to come.

Needless to say, 2016 was a taxing year, and 2017 is turning out to be even more so. Artistic expression, however, has long played the yin to oppression’s yang, and not for the first time — nor, likely, the last — in 2016, it was African-American voices who carried much of the weight of resistance.

Last year was a banner year for black excellence, in which a perhaps unprecedented number of artists shone across the cultural spectrum. Last year witnessed the return of legends Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest; the consistent mastery of Wesley Morris, Ava DuVernay and Ta-Nehisi Coates; the continued dominance of superstars Beyoncé and Kanye West; and inevitable breakouts from Solange Knowles, Donald Glover, Issa Rae and Devonté Hynes. But two particular projects rose above the rest: Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde.

Moonlight was a long time coming, and its success was only right. Amid programming films at the Telluride Film Festival, working as a staff writer on The Leftovers, directing commercials, working as a carpenter, and writing shelved scripts, eight whole years had passed since Jenkins’s San Franciscan debut, Medicine for Melancholy. Ocean, on the other hand, was coming off a seemingly endless hiatus, during which fans and media alike grew rabid for a follow-up to 2012’s near-perfect Channel Orange. Unsurprisingly then, both Jenkins’s and Ocean’s returns played out as events.

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The oft-delayed, mythically-hyped Blonde had the internet in an effortless half nelson: there was the teasing late-night carpentry tutorial, the release of Endless, Blonde‘s surprise Apple-exclusive premiere the following day, and the accompanying Boys Don’t Cry zine pop-up shops. Moonlight garnered vocal support in a more grassroots manner, through Twitter and word of mouth on the festival circuit. In Toronto alone, it received the biggest opening in the existence of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and even had local businesses eagerly spreading the word.

These two releases stood out on the basis of zeitgeist-tapping and artistic merit alone, but they’ve also frequently been paired for their novel, nuanced reconstructions of black masculinity. Decades after the limelight of films like Tongues Untied and Paris is Burning, and artists such as RuPaul and Frankie Knuckles, Blonde and Moonlight provided two timely, black, queer narratives. And they did so on a stage of incomparable magnitude, in close proximity to Nate Parker’s vow of refusal to play gay roles, which would supposedly “preserve the black man.”

So maybe association between Ocean’s work and Jenkins’s is inevitable. The reliably observant film critic David Ehrlich dubbed MoonlightCarol by way of Frank Ocean.” Jenkins himself confessed to writing Moonlight‘s screenplay to Slim K’s chopped and screwed rework of Ocean’s Channel Orange. Boldest of all, Minnesota’s Uptown Theater marquee went so far as to call the film “a Frank Ocean song for the eyes.” A curious comparison, that.

But despite the superficial parallels, Frank Ocean’s lush songwriting and production stylings seem more suited to soundtracking the decadence of, say, Sofia Coppola’s films. What does a single like “Nikes” — with its materialistic allusions to sneakers, Giuseppe Zanotti heels, Balmain jeans, NASCAR ads, and Jenny Holzer tees — have to do with the tale of Chiron, which catalogs an impoverished black boy coming to terms with his homosexuality?

Look closer, and you’ll see that “Nikes” is more complicated than its title and a cursory synopsis. Its dense, evocative lyrics are a stream of consciousness, non sequitur at times, guided by emotion rather than logic or reason — and astoundingly vivid. It’s an approach certainly not unlike that of… director Barry Jenkins. And so, with the Oscars looming, it’s worthwhile to investigate Moonlight through the lens of Frank Ocean’s “Nikes.”

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Special shout-out to the icon dynasty, Slip-n-Slide Records

The video version of “Nikes” opens with Frank Ocean paying verbal homage to Slip-n-Slide Records, the Florida rap label that jumpstarted the careers of Trick Daddy and Trina. The latter’s cameo appearance in the video immediately solidifies a tangible link to the personal life of Barry Jenkins. As fate would have it, all three creatives happened to attend Miami Northwestern High School, one of the numerous autobiographical elements Jenkins sprinkled into his Moonlight script. Based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue — an unproduced play by MacArthur Genius Grant-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney — the film’s screenplay and its protagonist were made up of shared, as well as distinctive, details from the lives of both writers.

Although not acquainted until adulthood, Jenkins and McCraney — both children of drug-addicted mothers — were concurrently raised in Miami’s Liberty Square housing projects. Moonlight‘s Teresa, Chiron’s de facto godmother (played by Janelle Monáe), was heavily inspired by Jenkins’s childhood guardian, Minerva. Likewise, McCraney’s sexual orientation played a key factor in the conception of Chiron’s character. This process parallels Frank Ocean’s development of Blonde — in an interview with the New York Times, he explains that, inspired by a friend, he felt compelled to “talk about the way I grew up more.” In the same interview, he adds, “I wrote Channel Orange in two weeks. The end product wasn’t always that gritty, real-life depiction of the real struggle that happened.”