Set in a Miami of demanding exclamation points, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight presents identity as a question mark. Not only is self-actualization the victim of social norms and expectations, but one’s identity is often out of reach thanks to that very circumstance. As if that weren’t insurmountable enough, there is also trauma grabbing us by the neck to define us. And is our chosen persona something we chase or run from? In Jenkins’s hand, identity is tough to define as we’re always in a state of transition as well.
Let’s not be so tacky as to call Moonlight universal. The story of young African American Chiron’s developing awareness of his homosexuality within the drug-riddled Miami inner-city may have various points of entry over its triptych for all audiences to relate, but Jenkins never chases anything but the hyper specific. His open-hearted (or bursting hearted) approach to a very exact story is certainly for everybody, but it is not of everybody. The magic of the film’s glorious specificity is how much room it allows for those profound questions of identity politics. How much of who we are is decided for us and what do we get to decide for ourselves?