Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in the 2016 film Moonlight (all images courtesy A24)

In Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight, the main character, Chiron, is mostly silent. We first see him as a small boy already accustomed to keeping the counsel of his own thoughts. He habitually settles his face into a pout that looks like distilled disappointment. His pout becomes more resolute with age. He doesn’t trust himself to say anything the right way, that is in any way that will make a difference: prevent a beating, create a friendship, redeem his mother from her drug habit, get her sober enough to be a mother. Chiron also doesn’t trust the listener to make good use of the little language he lets through. The film is largely about the physical and emotional violence that’s done to Chiron that enmeshes him in silence, against the grain of the slim moments of inexplicable kindness that break through to nurture him towards trust.

Movie poster for Moonlight (2016)

The American poet Tess Gallagher once wrote in the voice of the dialogic partner that Chiron lacks in “When You Speak to Me.” She writes, “Take care when you speak to me. / I might listen. I might / draw near as the flame / breathing with the log, breathing.” With her speech, this speaker strives to uncover what the other’s words can evoke in her. Chiron doesn’t quite believe he has this power. However, in the wider culture, this poet’s conviction has infused the discourses convened around feminism and queer studies. There is a core idea underlying both areas of study/politics: that it’s critically important to articulate one’s desire — to say what one wants and with whom, when and under what conditions. To be able to do this is not only to achieve sexual agency, but is also to flower into a full state of being.

This idea might be rooted in sociological studies of adolescent development.  It has been argued that becoming intelligible about one’s desires makes it more possible for adolescents to recognize who they are and make informed decisions about the kind of sexual activity they will allow themselves to engage in, and that this kind of self-knowledge might in turn help to shape them as responsible citizens. For queer communities, for women who do not have normative desires the stakes are higher — to recognize themselves as full human beings, to be recognized as such by others. You can hear in a gay poet’s promise to his partner the possibility created by speaking one’s desire. Essex Hemphill writes in his poem “American Wedding”: “I vow to you / I give you my heart / a safe house.” The place of protection is formed in the spoken promise.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (2016)

Watching Moonlight, which Jenkins adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney, one wonders whether Chiron can ever navigate his way to such a place, especially since he hardly speaks. As an adult, he gains the physical bulk and a “career” that makes speaking both less required and less frequent. He stays hidden. But then he gets a whiff of smoke that sends him driving from Atlanta to Florida. He begins to feel perhaps, as Gallagher writes, “I might listen, I might / draw near as the flame / breathing with the log, breathing / with the tree it has not / forgotten. I might.”

And the entire film holds us in a vicious tension: Will Chiron be hurt by someone else? Will he escape his mother’s house? Will he arrive at the place where the one boy (now also a man) who once touched him in genuine affection says he will be, and what will happen if he makes it there? At the end of the film we are still left with questions, though there is a poetic caesura in the final scene. What stays with me is the scene just before the last, when Chiron again has the opportunity to say what he wants, if not for the future, then at least in that moment. He fails this moment. He does not say what he wants. Rather he stands outside of himself and points to that self saying, this is what I haven’t had for a long time, what I have been missing. And this time, the typically indifferent universe lets one kindness through the veil of his self-doubt and self-hatred and the man Chiron has driven all day and all night to see takes on the task of Gallagher’s speaker, showing Chiron: “I might listen. I might / … put my face / next to / your face / in your nameless trouble, / in your trouble / and name.”

Moonlight is playing at select theaters nationwide.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

One reply on “A Film Shows How Important It Is to Name One’s Desire”

  1. Very lovely review, using the poetry of Gallagher and Hemphill was masterful. It added a poignant, emotional heft and flooded me with childhood memories of my desire to be who I was even with little support in my southern religious upbringing. I stuttered and stammered when I spoke but at night my voice was clear as I fought with God “to not forgiven me for isn’t wrong. I am not bad.” It’s a common struggle for so many of us, beautifully explored in the movie and equally beautifully explored in your review. Kudos, Seph!

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