Rough Waters: some thoughts on Moonlight

Directed by Barry Jenkins and released in 2016, Moonlight tells in three chapters the story of a young black man growing up and struggling to find himself in a hypermasculine Miami where the majority of the people around him are forcing him into labels and boxes before he is even able to fully find himself. After (terribly) procrastinating for literally months, I watched Moonlight for the first time last Wednesday; since then have watched the movie fully once more, as well as played through various select scenes repeatedly in an attempt to understand and appreciate as much as I can. One of my favorite scenes of the movie is when Juan teaches Little to swim; here’s a hopefully-understandable overview of some of the thoughts I scribbled into my journal while watching this movie. 

In this scene, Jenkins uses handheld shots and immersive sound to ultimately demonstrate Little’s rough— yet necessary— initiation into independence and realization of self. Shots of Juan and Little on the beach are accompanied by the sound of strong wind and waves before swelling orchestra music takes over, and the scene cuts to a low-angle shot of Little from under the waves. The water splashing over the camera lens immerses the audience in the scene, creating low visibility as if one were in the water with Little and Juan. As the camera follows Little attempting to tread over to Juan, the subtle J-cut of Juan telling Little to “give [him] his head” plays before the scene actually cuts to a shot of Juan holding up Little’s head as he floats. This disjointed visual and sound conveys the surreality of the situation for Little, as this is something out of his comfort zone that he is so absorbed in and is not able to fully wrap his head around. The bobbing underwater-perspective shots and soft swishing noises of the water give perspective into Little’s mind as he tries to trust Juan to initially keep him afloat.

The water splashing over the camera lens becomes more prominent and frantic throughout each shot, especially when Juan encourages Little to swim on his own, synchronizing with Little and emphasizing his ability to perform despite his uncertainty and instability in the rocky water. The sound of Juan’s laughter and the quick pan back to show him laughing as Little swims emphasizes the connection between the characters; rather than a cut that breaks the characters into their own individual shots, the panning creates a tangible link between Juan and Little visually. A cut hidden in the water washing over the camera lens brings Little back to focus, showing him catch his breath before starting to swim again. This cut after the panning shot establishes that though the two have started to form a connection, Little has also started to learn independence and to sustain himself, essentially taking control when the cut moves back to frame just him.

Throughout, the soundtrack of a violin playing arpeggios grows increasingly feverish as the scene builds up to Little swimming on his own, slowing down when Little pauses and finishing out in a high note before the only sound is that of the water lapping around him. This soundtrack creates tension and a sense of slight nervousness as Little learns to swim and learns to trust Juan. The culmination of these handheld shots paired with the rising and falling orchestral music mirrors the rocky transition into self-realization; the immersiveness of the water allows perspective as Juan shows Little the first step into independence, teaching him to cautiously trust others but mostly trust himself.

Jenkins creates an involved experience through this scene, providing clear connections between Little and Juan as well as between Little and the audience. Little learning to swim parallels his dive into the journey of defining himself on his own terms and claiming his independence, and Jenkins is successful in establishing this swimming scene as the first step in Little’s struggle for self-awareness. This is a film that focuses on telling an individual’s story in a way that shifts boundaries and defies standards, expressing that identity is highly subjective and easily varied; from scenes such as the swimming lesson to the purposefully chopped and screwed soundtrack that combines both orchestral and hip-hop elements, Moonlight breaks many previously-set expectations in sharing one black man’s story. Throughout the movie as a whole, Jenkins addresses the fragile, mutable, and complex nature and identities that humans possess, exposing both the simple joys and underlying melancholy in the world and, through this character’s experiences, ultimately inviting the audience to search for their own path of self-realization.


  1. Pingback: Quarterly Rewind, Spring 2017 | Poetry, Hozier, & “King Lear” | Musings From Neville's Navel

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