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.

3

Weed crumbles into glitter/ Rain, glitter/ We laid out on this wet floor/ Away turf, no Astro

We only human and it’s humid in these Balmains/ I mean my balls sticking in my jeans/ We breathin’ pheromones, Amber Rose

This intoxicating, imagery-laden passage, the sole verse sung in Frank Ocean’s actual, unmodified voice, also evokes Chiron’s first foray into sexual expression. For the only time in either Moonlight or Blonde, both participants are stripped bare to their unconcealed essence. Uncannily, Ocean’s lyrics render the scene he’s discussing nearly indistinguishable from Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton’s depiction of Chiron’s experience: after yet another merciless high school day, Chiron seeks solace at the beach, away from the contained Liberty City ecosystem. There, he bumps into Kevin, kindling surely the most tangibly immersive sequence of the year. Laxton cultivates the ambience with utmost attention to minor detail. In vivid, high-contrast lighting, he captures the floating embers of Kevin’s blunt, the damp evening sand, the humidity of the Floridian summer night, and the merciful breeze rustling the leaves of surrounding trees. The atmosphere is so palpable, you could taste it.

Laxton frames the boys as if they’re the only souls in the universe, while deifying their dark skin tone with pastel-like illumination. For a fleeting wrinkle in time, Miami delivers on its sunlit pretenses; the crushing weight of Chiron’s ubiquitous oppression evaporates into thin air. “Man, sometimes I cry so much I think I’mma turn to drops,” Chiron confides in Kevin. Dialogue-free, Claire-Denis-by-way-of-Hype-Williams glances and touches ensue. Tension is broken as they kiss in close-up. Kevin begins unzipping Chiron’s ill-fitting jeans, a stark socioeconomic juxtaposition to Ocean’s unaffordable Balmains. One hand tightly grips the encompassing sand; another runs through it. An intimately ethereal snapshot is immediately seared into the viewer’s memory bank.

In one of the most dexterously-handled scenes of recent vintage, Jenkins pulls off an honest-to-god revolutionary feat. He doesn’t just show two black men kissing on a mainstream platform; he does so compassionately and unapologetically. It’s every bit as groundbreaking as Frank Ocean’s eyeliner-accented Freddy Mercury glam fit in his “Nikes” video. (Or his pre-Channel Orange coming-out Tumblr letter, for that matter.) An illustrative sample of Moonlight as a whole, the beach sequence virtually plays like a Bechdel Test for black and LGBT subjects. No hetero or white saviors, no reactions to white hatred. Nothing but authentic representation, agency, and portrayal.

4

Don’t know what got into people/ Devil be possessin’ homies/ Demons try to body jump/ Why you think I’m in this bitch wearing a fucking yarmulke?

Is nothing sacred? In Chiron’s developmental years, nothing was. A decade following Kevin’s reluctant, but cowardly betrayal in a violent game of “Knock Down, Stay Down,” Chiron – now played by Trevante Rhodes – finds himself a changed, paradox of a man. Living in Georgia after a stint in juvenile hall for his retaliation on classroom bully Terrel, Chiron gets involved with selling drugs. Yet another institution fails him, as he is unjustly jailed and, like a cog in the machine, propelled into a life of crime.

Caught up in the cycle of America’s deliberately suppressive War on Drugs, he now refuses to be physically harmed, at the very least. Built like a tank and nearly unrecognizable, he bears a closer resemblance to 50 Cent or Rodney Stuckey than the scrawny teen of his youth. Driving all the way back to Miami – undoubtedly listening to Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You” and pondering unrequited love in a scene left on the cutting room floor – Chiron prepares for a reunion with the only person he’s ever expressed affection toward. Jaded by past deceit, and thus armored, he nevertheless longs for Kevin’s carnal and emotional embrace.

Before stepping into Kevin’s diner, Chiron parks Juan’s old, yet mint-condition Chevy Impala. The same gold crown remains on the dash. Like the once-innocent Michael Corleone, he’s followed in his father figure’s well-intentioned, but complicated footsteps — the same footsteps that indirectly robbed Chiron of his own mother’s care. “Classic Man” blares out of the sound system, while his grills, earring, chain, and Rollie glisten in the pitch-back night. Immaculately groomed, he hops out the car and brushes his hair. Chiron’s clothes can barely contain his hyper-masculine physique, but his carefully rehearsed walk shows finesse. These are his protective yarmulkes. This is his overcompensated façade, his camouflage for the violent, homophobic jungle he has no choice but to inhabit.

Moonlight has been described as a love story, but a visual bildungsroman seems more accurate. Here’s an account of a survivor, stripped of his identity, crippled by manmade constructs, alienated by every imaginable institution, forced to merely exist rather than actually live. Life continues to pass him by, as past traumas paralyze his ability to explore his sexuality. A haunted and conditioned interior prevents him from seeking pleasure for fear of any further scarring. He’s frozen in place, wrestling unimaginable repression.

When Kevin finally re-enters the picture, he notices Shy-rone “still can’t put more than three sentences together.” After disclosing he’s had a child with a high school sweetheart, Kevin asks Chiron if he remembers the moment they shared together on the beach. Not realizing the pivotal, yet thorny impact the night had on Chiron’s life, Kevin’s revelation juxtaposes the two separate paths taken since. “You’re the only man who ever touched me,” Chiron admits. Kevin holds him.

5

We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first

True to his outspoken nature, Kevin refuses to shy away from honesty upon seeing Chiron for the first time in ten years. “Who is you, Chiron? The fronts… It’s not what I expected.” Wounded, Chiron retorts, “What did you expect?”

But just what did Kevin expect? For Chiron to be more effeminate? To not be trapping? Are violence, selling drugs, and crime intrinsically masculine? Does masculinity have a specific look or set of rules? How are gay black men supposed to behave? These questions have no finite answers, but they spark serious food for thought — not just for Kevin, but for society’s expectations of performed social roles. Herein lies the brilliance of Barry Jenkins and Frank Ocean.

What is R&B supposed to sound like? If there was ever a box, Ocean took a hammer to it with Blonde. Drawing on inspiration from eclectic sources — Elliott Smith, The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Todd Rundgren — he’s completely redefined the genre. The same can be said for his filmmaking counterpart. In stitching together the queer anti-love story of Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, the triptych structure of Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Three Times, and the sexual repression of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail to form the whole that is Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has repurposed Asian and European sensibilities to create an unmissable new voice in black cinema. While the masses prophesy, Ocean and Jenkins see the future first. Hopefully, it’s one that’s roused to fight for acceptance in a world hell bent on hatred and exclusion.

Marko Orlic is a film industry professional, culture writer, podcaster, and occasional DJ who lives in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.

Illustrator Alex Sheriff, a visual artist and graduate of New York’s Parsons School of Design, currently resides in Los Angeles. His first solo show at Praxis New York, “Fish on Land,” is open now.