Moonlight (2016)

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Running time 1h 51m
Core concepts this week

quare studies

femme phobia

makeshift masculinity

View on Amazon Prime

Film background

Moonlight is a 2016 film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on a play titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who also worked on the development of the film as a story writer and executive producer. Moonlight was Jenkins’ second film and it garnered critical acclaim for Jenkins. Following its success, he went on to direct If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and The Underground Railroad (2020). Both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Liberty City, Miami, which is the setting for Moonlight, and both men were raised by mothers who struggled with drug addiction. McCraney identifies as gay, and Jenkins identifies as straight. Moonlight won many awards, including the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali).

Plot summary

Moonlight has a three-act structure. “Act I: Little” follows a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert), who is also known as Little. He lives in Liberty City, Miami, with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). While being chased by bullies, Chiron meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes him out to eat and tries to coax Chiron into telling him where he lives. When Chiron resists, Juan takes him home, where Chiron meets Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan’s girlfriend. They feed him and he spends the night, before Juan takes Chiron home to Paula. Juan continues spending time with Chiron and mentoring him, which Paula does not approve of. Chiron also connects with Kevin, (Jaden Piner), who tries to teach him how to fight to avoid bullies. One night, Juan finds Paula using drugs, and they have a confrontation about Chiron’s well-being. Later, Chiron confronts Juan, asking him if his mother does drugs and if Juan sells drugs, apparently connecting the dots between his challenges at home and Juan’s career. In “Act II: Chiron,” Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is in high school. His mother’s drug addiction has worsened, and he splits his time between his home and Teresa’s home. Juan has been killed at some time between Act I and and Act II. One night, Chiron runs into Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) on a beach, and the two have a sexual encounter. Soon after, at school, a bully named Terrel convinces Kevin to beat up Chiron. Kevin is reluctant, but goes through with it. The following day, Chiron attacks Terrel in school and is apprehended by police, who apparently take him to juvenile detention. In “Act III: Black,” Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is an adult drug dealer living in Atlanta. Paula, who is in recovery, calls him and asks him to visit her. They share a heated reconciliation. After receiving a phone call from Kevin (André Holland), Chiron drives to Miami to visit Kevin at the diner where he works as a cook. Kevin cooks dinner for Chiron, and they discuss their pasts. Kevin brings Chiron back to his home, and Chiron admits that he has never been touched the way Kevin touched him when they were teenagers. The two hug, and the film ends with them sharing an intimate embrace.

Content warnings

Moonlight includes two scenes of non-explicit sexuality, one scene involving a violent fight, and drug abuse.


  • This week, we are reading two articles that specifically address Moonlight, rather than one on Moonlight and one work that does not address the film. This is because both of these articles are accessible, but slightly too long for a single night’s assignment, and they provide interesting counterpoints for discussion.
  • L. H. Stallings’ piece, “Am I a Faggot?” extensively uses the phrase, “Negro faggotry,” borrowing from Marlon Riggs’ use of the term in “Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a Snap! Queen” (which is paired with his film, Tongues Untied in the documentary unit). You may want to consider how to approach Stallings’ use of this term as part of her claim in your classroom.

Materials for this week

  • Lesson plans [Word doc]
  • Screening quiz [Word doc]
  • Film screening notes handout (same as unit 1) [Word doc]
  • Film studies vocabulary handout (same as unit 1) [Word doc]
  • Secondary texts:
    • Day 2: Stallings, L. H. “Am I A Faggot?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies vol. 25, no. 2, 2019, pp. 342-351. [pdf]
    • Day 3: Johnson, E. Patrick. “In the Quare Light of the Moon: Poverty, Sexuality, and Makeshift Masculinity in Moonlight.” The Western Journal of Black Studies vol. 43, no. 3 & 4, 2019, pp. 70-80. [pdf]

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