The double entendre writ into Moonlight‘s title (Merriam Webster: “to hold a second job in addition to a regular one”) adds a rich layer to our understanding of the film. From the film’s first discussion of the word it takes for a title – Juan’s anecdote of the Cuban woman telling him “in moonlight, black boys look blue” – the phrase is imbued with a transformative power, particularly one happening along lines of identity and through the eyes and mouths of others. Likewise, the film establishes a link between moonlight and the ocean, with a number of sequences of Chiron visiting the ocean at night (most poignantly, its closing shot), creating a metonymic chain between the ocean, with its myriad Jungian associations of cleansing and transformation, and nighttime, with its implications of liminality and otherness. The signifier “moonlight” is thus the site where all of these ideas overlap: a liminal space in which one sheds their usual persona in order to temporarily adopt one secondary to it. That this transformation is associated with the external imposition of identity suggests that whatever moonlighting may occur in the film is not undertaken willingly per se on the part of the moonlighter, that it is a role they are more or less forced into (or out of) by the eyes and mouths of others.
It is tempting – our discussion in class being particularly telling to this end – to thus attempt a reading of Moonlight as the story of an externally normatively masculine black man who only occasionally allows himself to moonlight as queer, or, conversely, a queer black man forced into constantly moonlighting (“daylighting” might be more appropriate) as straight in order to survive in a hypermasculine social order. The stakes of this effort toward assimilation are increased by Chiron’s surroundings; drawing on Kara Keeling’s discussion of Set It Off in “Reflections on the Black Femme’s Role in the Reproduction of Cinematic Realitv,” Chiron is forced to navigate a “ghettocentric reality (which valorizes a virulently heterosexual masculinity)” (Keeling 142) despite not falling into the normative definition of this heterosexual masculinity that his peers valorize. These readings – the second more so than the first – are not without evidence in the text, but each is ultimately insufficient in the “regular” identity it ascribes to Chiron. Chiron eludes identification as such; this is made clear from even the image used to advertise the film, reproduced on the case of the DVD (and at the bottom of this blog post). There is no one consistent Chiron; whatever point he occupies in his life (and whatever name he chooses to go by – I’ve used Chiron for the purposes of this post, but the choice was essentially arbitrary), he is at once Little, Chiron, and Black. It would thus be insufficient to ascribe to Chiron/Little/Black the label of straight, queer, gay, what have you, as each of these terms would ignore what is Moonlight‘s most essential lesson: the transitivity of identity. Whatever “primary” identity the interpretations discussed above would ascribe to Chiron would be as put-on, as insufficient, as the secondary identity he moonlights as – such is the nature of identity at large.
Freud’s “Observations on Transference Love” also touches on the idea of transitive identity in its claim that transference love “exhibits not a single new feature arising from the present situation, but is entirely composed of repetitions and copies of earlier reactions” (384), particularly in conjunction with the following (some would say rhetorical) question: “can we truly say that the state of being in love which comes manifest in analytic treatment is not a real one?” (385). What Freud is suggesting here is that love at large might well always be transferential, and what more, might thus just be a reenactment ad infinitum of primal relationships, of attachments and reactions felt with whomever preceded the current love object. In framing those of Chiron’s relationships that might be qualified as loving as themselves marked by this transferential, would-be psychoanalytic quality (Juan’s endless efforts to get Little to speak, Kevin’s asking Chiron what he cries about), Moonlight opens the door to understand “real love” as itself possessing a certain transferential nature – one which does not invalidate its status as real. The issues of transitivity that this raises are clear; Kevin seems to be filling a role first inhabited by Juan, feasibly inhabited by someone else before him, and able to be inhabited by anyone who happens to exhibit the right characteristics after Kevin. One might thus call Freud’s philosophy of love more than a little bit bleak – the scene from Freud: The Secret Passion wherein an upset Martha asks Freud, “What about us? Are we only reflections of others in our past?” comes readily to mind. One might say the same of Moonlight, and in neither case would one necessarily be wrong. But what makes Moonlight so poignant is its success in showing the beauty of those fleeting moments when two people’s trajectories overlap, even for a split second; when they’re able to call to mind whatever images from one another’s past they need in order to share some sort of transference, however incompatible with what might follow. Moonlight finds beauty in Chiron’s transitivity, in the myriad selves he occupies over the course of the text, precisely for those fleeting moments he shares when his and someone else’s (the ambiguity of that term being exactly the point) paths cross like ships in the (moonlit) night.