Are there times when you wonder, “Who am I really?” Has there been many changes in your life that cause you to question where the “real you” has gone? Living day-to-day, managing responsibilities and engaging with others can leave little time to process and integrate new experiences into how you think and feel about yourself. Having an understanding of one’s identity is a lifetime journey. Development that takes place during childhood, adolescence and adulthood; and the various roles within a lifespan require continuous self-adjustments. The way one perceives oneself and behaves can change significantly as one matures. Various persons such as family, supportive adults, peers and friends influence both our perceptions of ourselves and who we ultimately become. For some, the process of learning and maintaining one’s identity appears to come with ease. However, “human identity is a complex process” that is “constantly evolving” (Nin Marquez, 2014). As such, for others, learning and accepting oneself may be riddled with challenges and conflicts. Within the film Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, stages of early identity development of the protagonist “Little”, “Chiron” and “Black” is observed through life shaping experiences.
Little, performed by Alex Hibbert, is introduced as a youngster who is mocked, ostracized and bullied by his peers. His working mother’s ability to meet his needs is compromised due to her substance abuse, which makes home life a lonely existence. Comfort finds him randomly when running away from the taunts of his peers into a crack house. Juan, acted by Mahershala Ali, a concerned drug dealer, invites him to his home with his girlfriend, Teresa performed by Janelle Monae. Though Little takes a cautious approach while interacting with the couple, over time he generates a relationship where their home becomes a surrogate safe house when he requires solace. Juan becomes a father figure in his life and Teresa an alternate maternal figure who validates Little’s experience. Upon the path of developing one’s identity, individuals wish “to be recognized, dignified and esteemed by others. It is our human dignity which is at stake” (Nin Marquez, 2014). In childhood, “regulating the distress associated with negative social events, in addition to other negative stimuli, is important in self-concept development” (Sebastian, Burnett, Blakemore 2008, p. 444). Little fails continuously to successfully manage his distressed emotions and significantly struggles to resolve negative quotidian interactions he has with his mother and his peers. Consequently, such tumultuous interactions persist well into his adolescent years that negatively impact his self-concept, confidence and self-esteem.
Within his teenage years, Little ensures that he is referred to as “Chiron”, his legal name. Chiron, acted by Ashton Sanders, copes with his chronic stressors by using internalization, the process of holding feelings inward rather than readily expressing emotion(s). When approached and physically attacked, rather than flee as he did as a child, Chiron often surrenders to the assaults without attempts to defend himself. “By early adolescence, children are more likely to compare themselves with others and to understand that others are making comparisons and judgments about them; they also begin to place higher value on these judgments.” (Sebastian, et al. 2008, p. 441). During these formative years, Chiron understands that others view him as a vulnerable, defenseless victim to bullying and physical assaults.
“Adolescence is a particular important time for self-concept to be shaped by other people, especially peers” (Sebastian, et al., 2008, p. 444). Chiron’s trajectory of identity development follows an unconventional path. Since childhood he experiences little validation regarding his identity that supports building a positive self-esteem. Rather, Chiron witnesses his mother’s addiction and their mother-child relationship worsen, he remains a target of ridicule and assaults from his peers and relies upon acceptance from Teresa after Juan’s death and in passing an accepting peer, Kevin (performed by Jharrel Jerome). “The experience of terror and disempowerment during adolescence effectively compromises the three normal adaptive tasks of this stage of life: the formation of identity, the gradual separation from the family of origin, and the exploration of a wider social world” (Herman, 1992). Options within Chiron’s environment lack promise, where incarceration and death are likely known options. Connecting with Kevin, and ultimately engaging in his first sexual experience, illustrates for Chiron that validation, connection and intimacy are possible with a peer. When Kevin provides Chiron the nickname, “Black”, Chiron’s identity is again altered. Consequently, his last depicted act as Chiron includes his newfound ability to express his emotion of anger towards his bully and makes it known that he is willing to fight back.
Within adulthood Black adopts the identity of the only familiar and engaged male figure known to him, Juan. “Little” and thin build “Chiron” are abandoned for a tall, muscular man who is similarly employed as a neighborhood drug dealer. Visiting with a source of his childhood pain, he experiences a tender moment with his mother where apologies for the past are provided and resolution and healing begins. Once validated by his mother, Black travels in hopes to reconnect with another who was capable of providing similar acceptance, Kevin, performed by Andre Holland. Kevin finds that Black has been transformed and comments, “It’s not what I expected” and states, “It’s not you” as he takes account for how he presents. Though Black’s expression of his identity is challenged by Kevin, the recent validation obtained from his mother fosters his ability to offer and share himself and affections with another.
Events and interactions that shape who we are require time to integrate the impact they have upon us. When life moves quickly, it can be easy to look up and not recognize who we have become and feel a loss of whom we once were. Embracing that identity is not fixed, rather is an element of ourselves that is ever evolving allows changes in our sense of self to become expected, healthy occurrences during life.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. The aftermath of violence-from domestic abuse to political terror. BasicBooks.
Nin Marquez, M.I. (2014). The development of the self through the “gift of the self” or the mutual recognition. Journal of Perspectives of Economic Political and Social Integration, 19 (1) 143–153.
Sebastian, C., Burnett, S. & Blakemore, S-J. (2008). Development of the self-concept during adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12, (22), 441–446.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on February 24, 2017.