When best films of the 2010s lists started circulating at the end of last year, 2016’s Moonlight was a popular pick. Many hailed the movie as a masterpiece and its out-of-nowhere success elevated director-screenwriter Barry Jenkins, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and many of the cast on to the A-list.

Praised for its poetry, honesty and emotion, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story that’s both universal and specific. As with many coming-of-age stories, the story of a character figuring out their identity lies at its heart.

Chiron

Chiron is a young black man growing up in poverty in Miami. He is bullied by his peers, who seem to know something about him he doesn’t know himself. He isn’t sure who he is and who he should be. His only family is a mother addicted to crack cocaine. The man who sells it to her, Juan, is one of the few people who show him kindness. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa become surrogate parents to young Chiron.

The film is split into three chapters, with Chiron played by different actors as a boy, teenager and man. Naturally, casting three people to play Chiron emphasises the character’s identity crisis. So does the fact each chapter is named after one of the three names given to Chiron across his early life – Little, Chiron, and Black.

Chiron is played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes

‘Don’t call me that’

It’s quite a few scenes into Little before ten-year-old Chiron finally speaks: “My name is Chiron, but people call me Little.” Teresa replies: “Well I’mma call you by your name then.”

This is intended to be a kind gesture by Teresa. She recognises Chiron’s discomfort with being called Little. The other children use it as a taunt. In contrast to his opening words in Chapter 1, Chiron’s first act in Chapter 2 is to snap “don’t call me that” when a classmate calls him Little.

But does he like the name Chiron any better? Chiron being the title of Chapter 2 rather than Chapter 3 suggests not. He isn’t reconciled with his identity yet and he changes again for Chapter 3.

Chiron, after all, is another name someone else has given him. In this case Paula, the mother who rarely shows him love – certainly not in this chapter when her addiction is at its worst.

Paula’s dialogue in Chiron constantly asserts her ownership of him. She knows she is a source of shame for Chiron and wields his name and their mother-son bond as a weapon.

We first hear him called Black by Kevin – a childhood friend and the one classmate we see treat Chiron with respect. Later in the film he gives Chiron his first sexual experience. “That’s my nickname for you,” Kevin tells Chiron when asked about the name.

In giving Chiron the name Black, Kevin lifts up another aspect of Chiron’s identity. It’s also something that links them, emphasising bonds rather than something that sets Chiron apart as a target. It’s possible Kevin – always emotionally intelligent to Chiron’s needs – is trying to counteract the Little name Chiron dislikes. He asks: “You don’t like it?”

As with Teresa, Kevin cares what Chiron wants to be called and who he wants to be. The associations with someone he loves is perhaps why Chiron adopts both names, however briefly.

When Kevin unexpectedly gets in touch at the beginning of Black he isn’t sure what to call Chiron. He first calls him Black before correcting to “I mean, uh… Chiron”. Things end badly between them in Chapter 2. Kevin is not sure whether he has a right to use the affectionate nickname any more. Nor is he sure who Chiron wants to be.

Chiron doesn’t give him any easy answers. In Black, reuniting with Kevin strips back much of the artifice Chiron has taken on in adulthood. The last version of him we see onscreen is the ten-year-old from Little. As with the fractured photo of Chiron on the movie’s poster, each name represents a part of Chiron but none provides the full picture.

Chiron isn’t the only character shaped by a nickname. A brutal childhood fight saw Kevin nicknamed Tyson by the same classmates who gave Chiron the name Little.

Kevin’s awareness of the power of their different names could be another reason he seeks to give Chiron a new, more empowering name. Kevin’s nickname shielded him as a child, whereas Little exposed Chiron, but there is still fright and pain in Kevin’s eyes when ‘Tyson’ is forced to fight.

“You don’t know me…’

When we first meet Chiron he’s running from a gang of boys. Ten-year-old Chiron doesn’t know why he’s so relentlessly bullied. It could be because he’s small, shy or the way he walks. It’s difficult not to internalise the feeling he’s somehow doing something wrong.

Moonlight is filled with heartbreaking scenes but one of the biggest comes at the end of Little. Chiron asks Juan what the gay slurs used against him mean. They might come from the boys who chase him or they might, based on the scene before, come from his mum.

Juan explains it’s a word used to “make gay people feel bad”. Chiron asks whether the name applies to him but Juan answers “no” and, whether Chiron is gay or not, he should never be allowed to feel bad about it. “How do I know?” is Chiron’s next question.

Once older, Chiron will realise he is gay but already this part of his identity has been stolen and used against him before he has been allowed to come to terms with it.

‘Don’t I know you?’

Our identity is not always our own, although this isn’t always a bad thing. Those who care about us have some say in it as well as those who seek to harm us. Kevin has his own conception of who Chiron is – more so than Chiron himself.

Chiron goes from being played by Ashton Sanders in Chiron to Trevante Rhodes in Black. It’s a drastic transformation – physically and in attitude. Despite this, Kevin recognises Chiron as soon as he sees his face.

Chapter 3, Black, sees Kevin and Chiron reunite after ten years

Chiron is both comforted and unnerved by the fact Kevin can see him so easily. When Chiron admits he now sells drugs, Kevin tells him: “That ain’t you, Chiron.” Kevin has accepted Chiron’s identity through every iteration – but now he challenges it.

Chiron is used to having to defend who he is. The lessons of the past tell him that, whatever he does, he isn’t being who he should be. The difference is that Kevin is telling him he likes who Chiron was. There’s a positive response to who Chiron should be, not just a negative. The bullies who made Chiron’s childhood a misery aren’t likely to challenge his identity now, but Kevin still can.

‘So you gonna raise my son now?’

Chiron makes Juan confront his own identity. Juan feeds Chiron, welcomes him into his home, shows him love and gives him reassurance. He takes it on himself to give Chiron life lessons, teaching him how to swim. But he knows none of this outweighs the harm he does by continuing to sell crack to Chiron’s mother.

Still, Juan is the only male role model Chiron has growing up and it’s Juan’s path he ends up following. There’s an unseen mentor too – someone Chiron met in prison who gave him his start in drug dealing. Kevin feels culpable for Chiron’s situation in Black as Juan did during Little. The fallout from Kevin’s actions at the end of Chiron led indirectly to Chiron’s imprisonment.

Juan tried to mentor Chiron as a form of penance – but it was never enough. He could never directly apologise while continuing to profit from Paula’s addiction. Kevin can, and does. He’s able to put the past in the past and starts to show Chiron a way out.

Kevin has been to prison too but has changed his life around. Now he defines himself as a chef and father. He describes knowing he had to change when his son was born. “I wasn’t never really myself,” he tells Chiron – harking back to his days as Tyson.

It sounds simple but Chiron has never had that person who puts him above themselves. With Kevin back in his life, he now sees a chance for that. Kevin finding a different way – from the paths they were assigned as children and from the road taken by Juan – gives him fresh hope and self-belief.

‘I could just hit you with that chef’s special?’

Moonlight is a beautiful film, especially when Chiron is shown glimmers of an identity that works for him before anyone else. These sequences show Chiron he can exist in the world by being himself. He’s not the problem.

After running from the bullies in the first scene, he hides in a boarded-up stash house. Granted a rare peaceful moment to explore the world on his own terms, he holds a fragment of glass to the light in wonder.

On the beach with Kevin is one of the few moments Chiron lets his guard down. Smoking by the sea at night, he admits: “I cry so much sometimes I feel like I’m gonna turn into drops.” The night starts with this revelation of identity and triggers a deeper, romantic connection between the two, leading to sex.

Waves on the beach recur at key moments in all three chapters. Each time they represent a fleeting moment of happiness in Chiron’s life. The first time is Juan teaching him to swim, the second is with Kevin on the beach. The third is arriving at Kevin’s house after their reunion. The association of the beach with happiness puts a hopeful spin on the final image of a young Chiron looking out to sea.

Juan lays out the dilemma of identity for Chiron in Little when the boy is too young to understand it. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” Until Black and the reunion with Kevin, Chiron has forgotten this one of Juan’s life lessons.

By the time we leave Chiron there are signs his identity is no longer in crisis and a happier future is in sight. Kevin’s offer at the diner reminds him he no longer has to live by the restrictions of his childhood. There are more possibilities for his identity than he realised. This time he can have the chef’s special rather than having to stick to the menu.

Have something to tell us about this article?