Moonlight through panoramic lenses

A new film directed by Barry Jenkins, reviewed by counselling psychologist Dr Yetunde Ade-Serrano.

Based on an unperformed play 'In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue' by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a story of a black boy growing up in a not-so-nurturing environment in Florida, left to fend for himself. 

As a boy, his nickname of Little (Alex Hibbert) resonates with his growing experience of neglect and bullying. He lacks a sense of security, and is in a tangled relationship with his narcotic addicted mother Paula (Naomi Harris). He learns to find trust and solace in Juan (Mahershal Ali), as well as Juan’s partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). The viewer may perceive Juan at first as an undesirable mentor and role model, due to his unsociable activities which are in place to ensure his survival. However, the relationship that ensues is one of profound grounding for Little.   

At the same time as finding a haven, Little becomes aware of, and takes on a socially constructed sexual identity born out of, a sense of submission to the life he has been dealt. He is unsure what this may look like, and seeks to find answers and reassurance from the relationships he has somehow managed to create, in particular with his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner).

The film is told in three parts. In the second part we see the boy in his teenage years, responding to his real name Chiron (Ashton Saunders), but no more in control. Chiron is exposed to intimate experiences which neither affirm nor disprove his sense of identity and/or sexuality. He learns quickly that trusting relationships can, and indeed do, lead to betrayal.  

In the third part he is a man with a different nickname, Black (Trevante Rhodes). Black has not forgotten his moment of intimacy: he accepts and forgives his abandonment, but re-enacts his childhood history. The complexity of his childhood experiences are embedded within his attachment to the other, and supersedes any societal differences and prejudices that dictate the person he becomes.

The viewer is drawn in to the plot to align positively and/or negatively with a particular character, depending on one’s own experience of the world. The story also shines light on the experience of a lone mother who feels the injustices of her circumstances. Paula is unable to comprehend the cycle of destruction and the impact of her inability to consistently provide reliable emotional care, as she drowns in the waves of self-destruction.

As a counselling psychologist, my clinical experiences suggest the use of 'panoramic lenses' in viewing Chiron’s life experiences. It is not enough to examine the psychological effects of loneliness, anger, love, hate, betrayal, bullying, and neglect. It needs to be set within the context of Chiron’s own history, his understanding of internal models of relationships, and how these enable him to exist and survive.

It is certainly an interesting film to watch because it highlights how easy it is to make interpretations from a place of privilege when working with a client who may present as Chiron. For me, the reality of the choices he has made enables him to assume a position of control and power which is not bound up in culturally defined ideas of sexuality and/or sense of identity. Can clinical discourses encourage an exploration of attachment style, as well as a deconstruction of unhelpful dichotomies such as being 'black' and 'gay', whilst also remembering how the socio-economic environment in Chiron’s world played a part in his upbringing?

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