Can Chiron Speak?

Moonlight’s queer love might be silent, but it insists on being heard.

Illustration courtesy of Terrahilde, you can see more of her work at http://terrahilde.deviantart.com/

The scene is set, and the table too. It all seems so familiar: the faux bamboo of the placemats, the pink blush of those suburban walls, the glass of OJ so cold that it’s about to imprint a ring on the table, where Chiron sits nervously at the head. Even with all the comforts of his second home, he is silent. His eyes stare downward, absorbed by the sight of his own fingers, absentmindedly brushing against one another in a childish game that is never named. For a few long seconds, we sit with him in silence, until finally, he asks them. The question is uttered in barely a whisper, tenderly, inevitably, and with a breath of courage: What’s a faggot?

This scene is among Moonlight’s most memorable and emotional, one of the few instances when Chiron really speaks. Throughout the film, he’s enveloped by an aura of silence, marked by private reservation and introspection. Always, he is the quiet center of a frame that is so frequently filled with the noises of screaming parents, classroom brawls, and playground homophobia. But it’s during the film’s charged moments of silence that Chiron’s voice is truly heard.

Within Moonlight’s triptych structure, we meet the character three times: first, as a shy kid, fleeing a pack of bullies, then as a lanky teen, wearing worry like a scar on his face, and last as a grown adult, almost unrecognizable beneath a disguise of heavy chains, gold fronts, and muscle. In the final act, Chiron becomes Black, hardened into the role of drug lord, he’s sovereign over the realm of Atlanta’s inner city, trading capital in the form of drug packets and wads of cash. Growing up poor, black, and closeted, Chiron’s turn to crime seems assured from the start, as Barry Jenkins prizes social realism over feel-good redemption, exposing America’s system of racialized poverty in the process. For children like Chiron, it’s inescapable.

In this coming of age tale, our protagonist’s fraught inner psychology is seldom seen or heard directly, so often sinking beneath the subtext of parting glances, coded gestures, and deadening silences. In the third act, when Chiron receives an unexpected call from Kevin, his childhood best friend and one-time lover, he can barely mutter a word. “Been a while,” he finally murmurs to him over the phone, nervously breaking the silence of a long pause. Temporarily ditching all the street talk and bravado of his drug lord persona, Black becomes Chiron again, reduced to the quiet sensitive kid we met in the first act. But if Chiron’s love is silent, then his heartbreak and loss are too. After a brutal rite of initiation leaves him bloody and broken on the pavement floor, Chiron withdraws into wordlessness, his face bones smashed by the hands that loved him so tenderly in the previous scene. In Moonlight, silence is a form of dialogue in its own right. It’s within these moments of speechlessness that Chiron’s secret joys and private sorrows make themselves most easily heard.

How, then, do we listen to Chiron’s silence? How can we make meaning from an acoustic void, from a graveyard of words that, while thought and felt, are never spoken? What title can we give to a desire that dare not speak its name? In Moonlight, queer sexuality is ecstatic, beautiful, troubling, and secret, a rush of pleasure in one boy’s hormone-charged fantasies, but one that threatens to destroy him too. It’s a silence that swallows every scene, a spectre that looms in the background of every encounter. It’s hidden in Kevin’s tall tales about his “big dick” and sex in stairwells; in the elaborate disguise of Black’s musculature and his gangster machismo; in the circle of schoolboys who compare their genitals behind closed doors; in the sound of R&B playing in young Chiron’s dance class, a rhythm that choreographs his bold twirls at the center. Queer desire is an absence that haunts the whole of the film’s narrative — and yet, it’s situated so firmly at its core.

Moonlight’s queer subjectivity emerges as mysterious, nebulous, and hard to discern, barely audible within the silent interludes of gendered performance. Barry Jenkins teaches us that masculinity is not essential, but enacted, constantly produced via displays of manly ferocity and impenetrable toughness. For Kevin and Chiron, it’s a shroud, a thin veil to cover the unsightly bits of their queer selfhood, but one that, in moments of hushed privacy, so easily slips away. Like many of the year’s critically-acclaimed films, Moonlight fails to pass the Bechdel test, but nevertheless, it is feminist to the bone. Taking a page from Judith Butler, it exposes all gender as performative, revealing masculinity as inherently unstable, if not outright destructive. But despite the loudness of these characters’ gendered performances, it is through silence, through those brief ruptures of quietude, through that utter lack of words, that Chiron’s queer subjectivity makes itself known.

In moonlight, black boys look blue — it’s Juan who says it, recalling the words of an old woman he knew once in Cuba. Years later, two boys lean in for a kiss in the shadow of a waxing moon. Lunar light touching their flesh, neither speaks a word. How beautiful it all seems: a darkness that illuminates, a silence that insists on being heard.

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