a woman walks slowly away from the camera and into a pink lit room.

Moonlight: The Pivotal Power of Light and Color in Berry Jenkins’ Seminal Film

Narratively moving and visually stunning, Moonlight (2016) tells the story of Chiron, his life growing into his identity as a gay, black man in America.  A great deal of the memorable imagery in Moonlight can be attributed to lighting choices made by James Laxton (cinematographer) and Berry Jenkins, and the juxtaposition and colour palates reinforced in every frame by the film’s colourist, Alex Bickel, in post-production. There is depth and variance in the characters’ darker skin tones that contrasts beautifully with the vibrant greens and blues of the ocean and palms as well as the pinks, ivories, and teals of Liberty City’s buildings. The presence of body and bolstered character development that could have been lost for the black actors in the film–and has, historically, been hard for other creators to grasp–was instead enhanced and shone in the most brilliant uses of light, shadow, and colour.

Moonlight and Shadow

Harsh sunlight is a hallmark of Florida life so, naturally, it should be seen and felt in Moonlight, and absolutely is. Bright key lighting shines down on the characters’ heads and shoulders. Manifesting like a heavy weight that presses down on each of them in different ways. Juan, a well-meaning drug dealer and Chiron’s pseudo-father figure, seems to absorb the strength of light during conversations with the boy. He takes to it easily, moving through its harshness like he was made for it.

Young boy stands facing sideways, sihoueted by trees and the setting sun.
Still from Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’. Credit: Vanity Fair

Chiron’s mother bends under the intensity of the overhead shine. Ducking her head low while shadows without fill light make her face look gaunt and drawn. In a scene the boy shares with her, that same light bears down powerfully on both of them, ten-folding the ferocity of Chiron’s overwhelm in the face of his mother’s drug-induced mania.

Shades of Strife

In contrast to those moments of overhead lighting with little to no fill, we as viewers are given scenes lit to feel lush and balanced or deep and dynamic. Always in direct correlation with the main character’s comfortability or state of mind in a given situation. When Chiron is given shelter in Juan’s home, the light of the house wraps around him. It safeguards the boy from the abuse of the outside, giving him a warm respite. In night time scenes, however, shadows deepen and are often accompanied by a cocktail of coloured lighting. We wonder about Chiron’s feelings of safety around the streets and the people that populate his hometown.

An angry woman leans down and yells. She is surrounded by pink light and her hair is disheveled.
Still from Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’. Credit: Vanity Fair

At one point, a young Chiron watches his mother, Paula, retreat into a room lit with a troublesome neon pink. The colours distort the woman’s face and make the contours of her body feel jagged, removing all motherly softness. She is a different person in that pink. The effect is intense–her face is made gaunt, dark circles swallowing up the space under her eyes, while the red light makes her body seem sharp and dangerous. She transforms, becoming monstrous, dangerous, something not to be trusted. Instead of walking forward, toward her son, the woman moves further into the red. With this in mind, warm tones in the film often seem to connote strife, internal struggle, loss, and anger. And then there is blue.

Shades of Blue

Showing up in every chapter of the tryptic structured film, the colour blue is a binding force that scaffolds the colour palate in a wide number of scenes.  In Moonlight blue light is sadness, blue light is hardness and intensity, blue light is peace, weightlessness, and even self-discovery. In movement one, “Little,” Juan and Chiron spend time together at the beach, finding something alike in one another while wrapped, united, in the blue light of the ocean.

Man cradles the head of a young boy while the boy floats on his back in the ocean.
Still from Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight.’ Credit: Vanity Fair

Somewhat mirroring that sentiment, in the film’s third movement, “Black,” Chiron shares a moment with his aged mother where, instead of lit in that nefarious pink, she slouches into more forgiving shades of blue, white, and grey. There, Chiron and Paula finally exist on the same plane.  But you can’t have one without the other. The most moving sequences in the film are those that balance a combination of warm and cool or move smoothly from one palate to its opposite and back again.

Shades of Intimacy

A scene in the second movement of the film, “Chiron,” opens with the main character in his adolescence. It takes place after an intense argument with his mother. Under orange tinted lights, Chiron makes his way to the beach. There he meets his friend Kevin and they share a moment of intimacy. It’s Chiron’s first with a member of the same sex. While blanketed in tones of blue moonlight, sighs are accompanied by sounds of the ocean and shifting sand.

Man with facial hair places his hand on the back of his lover's head.
Still from Barry Jenkins’ ‘ Moonlight.’ Credit: The Guardian

The above moment between Kevin and Chiron is the epitome of romantic, soft-key lighting. The colour palate is gentle, warm, and encompasses the two men beautifully, almost cocooning them in a space that’s all their own. The lack of shadow is emblematic of deep trust and the back and fill lights are unobtrusive, in this photo it surrounds them like a halo lending to the rightness of the moment.

Throughout his story, you’ll notice that when Chiron felt truly safe with a person, this orange colour was present–with Juan and Kevin it was the light of the older man’s home and the natural lighting outdoors. During his first time with Kevin in the second movement of the film, the boys are backed by the orange spark of far off apartment windows. This image is from a scene at the end of the third movement. There is an awareness that the main character, Chiron, starts this film in blue, the moon, and ends it wrapped in sun.

On Lighting Different Skin Tones

Other than the queer inclusion and socio-political woke-ness, something inherently wonderful about Moonlight is how the film’s creators made deliberate, well-educated choices that lit darker skin tones beautifully and powerfully. With specific placement of key, back, and fill lights, and tonally on point colours, Jenkins and Laxton pull these incredible actor’s faces and bodies to the forefront. This skill of lighting a spectrum of skin tones is a special and vital thing that is only just becoming common practice in the industry.

Close up on a woman's face with blurred background.
Still from Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight.’ Credit: The Guardian.

How Film Finally Learned

Light is a practical aspect of film. Essential to form, lighting tells us where we should be looking and who we should be looking at. It also helps to develop the setting and character. Lighting further enhances themes and gives us new insight and clarity. Telling us who the people inhabiting the scene can trust. Those they’re scared of. Who they love. Who makes them comfortable…For decades, film catered almost exclusively to white skin. Lighting is not excluded from that narrative. Not until quite recently have filmmakers learned to light people of colour as well as they should have been able to all along.

At the helm of that progress lately have been a few key players. One popular PM show that’s made waves is HBO’s Insecure, visually captured by director of photography Ava Berkofsky. Ava does an excellent job making the all-black, female cast glow with techniques that cater to every body in frame. She leans away from harsh lighting that could have a “bleaching” effect on screen and, instead, places key and fill lights to “sculpt” the actors’ faces. Ava, and other experienced DPs, point out that “colour palette is key, whether in the production design or the post-production grade – drawing a rainbow of colours from the actors’ skin itself to create something more vibrant and less concerned with being “real.”’

Moonlight and Its Audience

Upon its release in 2016, Jenkins’ Moonlight immediately started garnering international acclaim. The fact that the narrative dealt with racism, drugs, ideas and ideals around blackness and queerness in the same breath was moving to the point of being revolutionary. Many know of the Academy Awards kerfuffle surrounding Moonlight’s win for Best Picture, but it must also be said that the win itself was a testament to not only the filmmaker but to a seismic shift that had begun to take place in American media. In many ways, filmmaking is in the infantile stages of catching up with its viewership. As a nation that has always been diverse, movie making itself was finally starting to diversify.

a woman walks slowly away from the camera and into a pink lit room.
Credit: The Guardian

Addressing the significance of Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, and the film’s Oscars win, writer Melinie Coffigny had this to say, “Watching Moonlight, I suddenly felt represented. Being a person of colour and queer is already a hard combination to showcase in our modern media.  And to me, adding a harsh socio-economic background and a moving storyline centred around gay love seemed to be an impossible feat. Yet somehow this film managed to touch each one of these areas perfectly, and with the recognition from the Academy, it now holds a distinctive place in cinema history” (Coffigny).

The Need for Representative Media

Though we have seen an improvement in the diversification, and overall inclusivity, of the entertainment industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. In a collative study done by Mckinnsey & Company, researchers found that, though 13.4% of the U.S. population is Black, less than an average of 6% of that same population make up the entertainment industry. In terms of on-screen talent, this number is gradually increasing. Behind the scenes though, high level positions belong almost entirely to white, cisgender, heterosexual men. At more than 95% white, TV show running is the least inclusive position in the Film and Television industry. Mckinnsey & Company also found that 97% of films without a Black producer on staff will not hire a Black director. Furthermore, without a Black producer on staff, productions are less than 1% likely to hire Black writers.

bar graph in blue and white with representation statistics.
Credit: Mckinsey.com

The rarity of seeing a Black lead on film is far less than it should be. Multiply that number by ten times in the negative and that’s the likelihood of seeing a queer Black lead in film. Often relegated to peripheral supporting roles, queer black men are one of the most underrepresented populations in modern media. Second only to transgender people of colour. Seeing such an honest depiction of Black, queer life in America via Moonlight is a rallying cry of sorts. It tells the world that no man, no feeling, is alone, and there is work yet to be done.

Significance in Anthropology

The hegemonic, ideological system of white patriarchal capitalism in the United States, in addition to directly influencing governmental and socio-political structure, has scaffolded the inception and continuation of American media, moulding film and television into ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). In the text “America on Film” by David Benshoff, the author speaks on how the media works to influence people’s perception of the world and themselves “without them even being aware that it is doing so.” More often than not, this plays in favour of America’s existing ideological structure. portraying the white heterosexual male as superior, all others as inferior.

Family in high society clothing. Their dark skin is washed out by harsh bulbs
Example of how photography can “bleach” darker skin. Credit: TIME Magazine

“For straight white men, those images can reinforce feelings of superiority. For everyone else, those images and ideas can produce mild to severe self-hatred or create a psychological state in which individuals limit their own potential. In effect, we might allow the dominant ideology to tell us what we are or are not capable of . That women are not good at math. Or African Americans can only excel at sports. That people from the lower classes must remain uneducated, that someone in a wheelchair cannot be an elected official, or that being homosexual is a shameful thing.”

A cycle is created in which an individual that is not a cisgender, white, heterosexual male develops patterns of internalized discrimination and ego-destruction. This means they are further marginalized by the imagery they see on screen whether that is done overtly or covertly, and the system that is oppressing them becomes self-sustaining. Therein lies the importance of representation in film.

Sources:

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.

Coffigny , Melanie. “Gay, Black, and Revolutionary: The Importance of ‘Moonlight’.” Pointfoundation.org, The Point Foundation , 20 Apr. 2017, https://pointfoundation.org/gay-black-revolutionary-importance-moonlight/.

IMDb.com. (n.d.). Barry Jenkins. IMDb. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1503575/.

Latif, N. (2017, September 21). It’s lit! how film finally learned to light black skin. The Guardian. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/21/its-lit-how-film-finally-learned-how-to-light-black-skin.

Lawson, R. (2016, September 3). Moonlight is a heartbreaking portrait of often overlooked lives. Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/09/moonlight-review-barry-jenkins.

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