“Runnin’ around, catching up all that light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You blue, that’s what I’m gon’ call you.”
In this post, I will be analysing Moonlight, specifically about the way in which the colour palette manifests in some of the film’s most harrowing and profound moments. I will be referring to Chromophobia, The Secret Lives of Colour and more texts to better understand how certain cinematic and artistic techniques aid the aesthetic and the trauma within the narrative of Moonlight. I will be also looking at how these techniques construct the visual framework and how it evolves throughout the film in conjunction with character development. Moonlight is a film divided into the three most defining moments of Chiron’s life; unified by the themes of addiction, homosexuality and masculinity. The film expresses the subject matter through clean and vivid colours – most often throughout the most emotionally ravaging and poetic scenes.
Samantha Lay expands on the definition of social realism in British Social Realism: From Documentary to Brit-grit. Elaborating on the content attached to the term, “Social realist texts are often as ‘gritty’ and ‘raw’ offering a ‘slice of life’ or a view of ‘life as it really is’.”(Lay 2002, p. 5). Films which follow this vein, such as Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (Loach, 2016) tend to document topics similar to the ones presented in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016). They align in terms of what they show us from the environment portrayed, in this case, they both represent poverty and being working class, except for presentation. Newcastle is portrayed with the usual grit and raw nature attached to social realism, yet Liberty City is represented with a more dimension. Michelangelo Antonioni states in On Colour “that the law of beauty doesn’t lie in truth to nature” (Antonioni 2009, p. 119). Liberty City illustrates a duality of what Little sees and what he experiences in his life. The rundown, yet vibrant look of the domestic and urban environments entrances viewers, as we delve into the exaggerated, explorative neon colour palette the city exudes. While I, Daniel Blake follows the realist thread of presentation; Moonlight averts the trend and relies heavily upon the neon colour palette of Liberty City, while the other highlights the dull, washed-out qualities that Newcastle possess. Siegfried Kracauer refers to formalism as a means of presenting abstract imagery in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality by highlighting certain aspects of the image, such as colour, sound and time, which allows the artist to “compose beautiful images rather than to capture nature in the raw” (Kracauer 1997, p. 6). In essence, it allows the style to be held in more esteem than the subject matter, but although it follows these tendencies, it never strays away from the realism within the situation. Instead, it just presents the aesthetic with formalistic techniques, such as accentuating the colour and the dynamism of any given situation while preserving the realism of the given situation. The scene where Chiron and Kevin playfight carries a lot of the signifiers of formalism. This environment is presented with lush vibrancy as the colour pop with vigour, as both Kevin and Chiron playfight; continuity jumps over and over again as the camera revels in their connection. The techniques used to construct cinema as we understand today are being highlighted to bring attention to the certain moments within the narrative, to better aid the development of characters, while also creating a more dynamic presentation method for the image and story, which possesses a poetic and surreal undertone. Such as the music, which joyful changes from the classical elements to the diegetic sounds of the train undercutting the ethereal feeling of the environment. David Batchelor alludes to how colour can supplement the skin in Chromophobia. He states that “Colour is a supplement, but it is also, potentially, a seduction. Cosmetics make flesh more appealing, flesh that may be tired or old, or flesh that may be diseased, disfigured, decayed or even dead and how it can almost reanimate someone to make even decaying matter look alive and fresh” (Batchelor 2000, p. 54).
The neon pink glow which bathes Paula and the hallway she occupies becomes one of the most harrowing moments within the film. Her youthful look and physicality have been devasted by her addiction even at the earliest parts of the first chapter; how it takes its toll it takes on her body is palpable. Colour almost rejuvenates her, most prevalent when Paula berates Little for looking at her while in the midst of her crack addiction. Supplementing her look is the pink glow which emanates from the room presumably where she feeds her addiction, animating her for a moment, only to inflict pain on Little before she returns to the source of the neon pink and the site of her prolonged addiction. Symbolising addiction with the neon pink plays into the unnatural theme of addiction to substances which only create temporary moments of happiness, which adds a dimension of artificiality. The neon glow is artificial, her happiness temporary and her decline into further drug abuse inevitable, it becomes the visual metaphor of the inescapable return to the very substance, which is very temporarily reviving, but simultaneously destroying her in front of her child’s eyes. The separation and disparity of their relationship are grounded in realism and elevated using a formalistic tone. In Seymour Chatman’s and Paul Duncan’s Michelangelo Antonioni: The Investigation. Michelangelo Antonino argues the merit of the amalgamation of the form and content. By outright stating that “form and content cannot be inseparable” (Chatman, Duncan 2004, p. 19). Moonlight allows both the form and the content to exist together, which allows the artistic direction and the narrative arc to support each other. Unifying the colour of the location into the harrowing moments of the narrative, allowing both the harrowing nature of the situation and the inescapable beauty of the locale to co-exist in a situation, which comes to define this moment in Little’s life, allowing the film to construct the aesthetic framework of the film.
Moonlight has a physical quality to it, particularly in the close-ups, we’re given a first-hand view into the physical and emotional toll suffered by certain characters. Sergei Kracauer elaborates on the geography of close-ups by stating “any huge close-up reveals new and unsuspected formations of matter; skin textures are reminiscent of aerial photographs, eyes turn into lakes or volcanic craters” (Kracauer 1997, p. 48). Texture in close-ups allows us to visualise the physical terrain of the face; the pain in the eyes and the decay of the skin give complexity to the image. The rebirth scene symbolises the moment where ‘Black’ is truly born. The blood, the flesh and the sterile blue shine on the face of Chiron present a new, yet unfamiliar angle within the pallet of Moonlight; this is the last time we see Chiron assuming the role of the victim, but it’s the first time he inflicts pain onto others. Starting a total re-construction of himself from the desolation he has endured, triggering his evolution as he bleeds for the last time. The explorative blues and purples which previously punctured the skin of Chiron as he began to open up and explore his sexuality have dissipated; those same colours which sheltered themselves on his skin has now been absorbed, almost like a black hole where no light escapes the infinitely dense mass, signalling the inevitable arrival of Black. Much like his sexuality, the colour palette familiar to him, in the beginning, has been suppressed. Everything that has made Chiron vulnerable has now been repressed deep down inside, allowing a new form of Chiron to be born from the remnants of chapter two.
Kassia St Clair alludes to the association of blood with power in The Secret Lives of Colour (St Clair 2016, p. 111), but in this case, Chiron has found his power in repressing the very things that make him human, the pulsating flickering and sterile blue hue which underlines the textures in the blood, face and water falling down his face. The repression of all qualities which make him Chiron have originated from the loss of power through the bleeding, repression becomes an aspect of presentation when it comes to the bleeding; the loss of power, as the red isn’t as vivid, isn’t as bold as every other individual colour shown, it’s presented with abstraction, epitomising the events which led to this moment. The texture of the composite image has given us insight into how a defining moment of total clarity in the face of utter disparity can show us the poetic meaning behind what it is to evolve from the environment; which has not only never understood Chiron but has also caused so much emotional trauma – provoking not only a physical overhaul but an emotional one too.
A far cry from the young boy in chapter two, Chiron adopts not only the name Black but specific signifiers of modern masculinity. David Batchelor alludes to the nature of the artist stating “nevertheless, ‘the artist will necessarily represent the human figure by its peculiar, even accidental characteristics” (Batchelor 2000, p. 25). Representing features of a figure by the accidental characteristics they can inherit. In contrast to this, Jenkins shows us how Chiron has deliberately built himself up from the ground since we last saw him. The trauma suffered in the decade since chapter two has moulded how light and colour penetrates the skin of Black, almost seeming to bounce off leaving the gold and jewellery intact. His teeth adorned in gold grills, his muscles have swallowed the weedy body of the Chiron in chapter two almost like a living armour, his presentation has become more indicative of a version he wants to portray, becoming more apparent during the interaction with the drug dealing subordinates working under him. When we see Paula and Black interact, the blue hue finds solace within the face of Black, while bathing Paula. The scene itself, much like a lot of the interactions in the final chapter aren’t necessarily introducing new pain into the life of the characters, but instead, it’s the re-negotiations of the relationships that start to agitate the traumatic memories. Perhaps one of the most interesting notions about the manifestation of colours is the juxtaposition between Black and the people from his past.
Chiron has changed, but Paula and Kevin still operate within the established colour palette, while Black has banished the colours all together with his grills being the main focal point for a more personal palette. Kassia St Clair refers to black being the colour of “mourning”, which due to the events which occurred in chapter two seemed to be the most natural way to evolve for Chiron (St Clair 2016, p. 245). By adopting the name and the colour for style choice, he mourned the version of himself which got repeatedly hurt, exploited and humiliated. St Clair also refers to the complicated nature of colour black (St Clair 2016, p. 245), which also represents the complexity of the cause/causality nature of the events occurring in Chiron’s life and how he has changed to prevent himself from being vulnerable; retreating to the familiar image of masculinity which he has been exposed to while growing up as a child.
The colour palette merges with the narrative using the techniques of formalism to highlight colours, methodically picking it out to evoke deliberate juxtaposition and separation from the realism while to a degree this occurs, the colours and narrative themes already exist within the environment. Cinematically the impoverished, drug-riddled and dangerous areas of the world present themselves in a sea of grey and mundanity, but Liberty City and even Atlanta are rich in colour and texture, which the film capitalises on, allowing the pain of the situations to take on new meaning. How the film tethers us to Chiron by allowing the environment around to project itself upon himself, for better or for worse in Chiron’s case it adds a deeply personal and universal element for the audience to relate to. Regardless of how specific the symptoms of poverty, homosexuality and addiction are within the setting, because of how well it paints the setting; it places us in the story – enabling the audience to anchor to the heart of Chiron; in turn making the most aesthetically stimulating moments in the film the most devastating, while also being within the story of Chiron which gives the film texture and dimension to a complex and layered subject matter just through the choice and execution of colour. Allowing beauty and pain to co-exist using techniques such as formalism to project the multi-layered themes and diverse colour pallet allows the environment to become its a separate living, breathing subject.
Antonioni, M. (2009). On Color. October, 128, pp.111-120.
Batchelor, D (2000). Chromophobia. Islington: Reaktion Books.
Chatman S, Duncan P (2004). Michelangelo Antonioni: The Investigation. Berkeley: Taschen.
Kracauer, S (1997). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lay, S (2002). British Social Realism: From Documentary to Brit-grit. UK: Wallflower Press. 5.
St Clair, K (2016). The Secret Lives of Colour. UK: Hachette UK.
Moonlight. (2016) [Online] Directed by Barry Jenkins. United States: A24 [Viewed 22nd March 2020]. Available on Amazon Prime.
I, Daniel Blake. (2016). [DVD]. Directed by Ken Loach. England: BBC Films [Viewed 14th April 2020]. Available on DVD.