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Barry Jenkins

In an early scene in Moonlight, Juan tells Chiron that he will one day have to figure out who he is, that no one else can tell him that, or force him to be someone he is not. This early scene looms over the end of the film, where a now “hard” Chiron returns to Miami to see Kevin, his first and only lover. Kevin tells Chiron, among other things, that his carefully cultivated appearance of toughness is “not you.” I’ve been thinking about this ending since I saw the film last night.

My initial reaction was confusion tending toward dissatisfaction. The first two-thirds of the film was characterized by an expertly sustained atmosphere of dread. The last third is not. It seemed somehow more dissolute, less unified, an abandonment of what the film had been building. And a similar dissoluteness characterized the storyline, with the fundamental question of who Chiron is being left unanswered. It seemed a cop-out.

But this first impression was, I am increasingly convinced, a mistake. The ending of the film does have an element of dissolution, but this is not the product of evading the question raised by what came before. It offers instead a very definite answer to that question.

The middle third of the film culminates in Chiron’s moment of self-discovery on the beach (with Kevin). At this point it can seem that Chiron has figured out who he is. The question of self-identity was raised earlier in the film in the context of Chiron being called a faggot and asking, in the heartbreaking manner of a child, “am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer — that he might be gay, but is not a faggot, and that he doesn’t need to know now if he is gay — sets up puberty as the obvious time at which Chiron will discover who he is. And the beach scene appears to confirm this. Then it can seem as if all that is left is the question of self-reliance: now that he knows who he is, will he be honest about it? Or will he cover up his true self with layers of deceit (not just to others, but also to himself)?

But to think in this way is to misunderstand the film. First, because it is only half the story. Chiron struggles not just with his sexual identity, but also with the question of whether he is hard or soft. By the normal standards, he is clearly soft (sensitive, withdrawn, not aggressive), though this is complicated by the fact that Kevin affirms to Chiron early in life that he (Kevin) knows Chiron is hard. And there is a toughness to Chiron that shouldn’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, by the normal use of the term, and by general perception, Chiron is unambiguously soft.

Still, it might seem as if Chiron has a clear identity (black, gay, soft) that he can either embrace or deny. The ending of the film is designed to show us that this is too simplistic, and its dissoluteness is in service of that end. Chiron, in Atlanta, has made himself into someone hard, at least someone with the trappings of hardness, though several scenes indicate to us that the soft interior is not vanished. We also learn that “no one has touched” him since that night with Kevin. So a first pass reading of these changes is that Chiron has been dishonest with himself, has abandoned his knowledge of who he is. That is certainly the impression I got from the very first shot of the film’s final third. But it is a mistake, a mistake the film deliberately encourages in order more thoroughly to undermine it.

If it were truly the case that Chiron in Atlanta is living a lie, a denial of who he is, then the return to Miami to see Kevin again should be a cathartic stripping back of the lies with which he has gilded himself. But it is not. It is much more ambiguous.

The basic reason is simple: human beings are not static, identity is not static. Chiron, in making his exterior hard, has changed himself. I do not mean that he is no longer fundamentally soft, but he is at least someone who, though, soft, has learned to survive in a world that demands that he be hard. Thus, when Kevin tells him that all of this is a lie, is false to who he is, it is not the voice of Chiron’s own self that speaks through Kevin. It is rather the cry of the past, of the Chiron of a decade ago. But the claim of our past selves on our present is always complicated, and cannot be trusted. The return to the old environment brings back old habits, old memories. It tempts Chiron to return to who he once was. But the attempt to be who one was previously is no less a lie than the attempt to be hard when one is soft.

Thus the ending of the film is ambiguous. Chiron goes to Kevin’s home, in a scene clearly meant to parallel the beach scene. But is this parallel to be read as a true parallel, or as a contrast? Is Chiron returning to who he truly is? Is he having a moment of rediscovery with Kevin? Or is he merely being tempted by a past that is no longer open to him? It could be either. One would need to know what happens next to be sure. What the end of the film does here is re-open the question, to throw Chiron back into a state of not knowing who he is, who he wants to be. The ending of the film is dissolute because Chiron himself is dissolute.