Barry Jenkins' Moonlight & Greek Myth

The lasting influence of ancient Greek culture - including comedies, tragedies, and myths - continues to be seen in new films every year. The elements that defined those Greek works remain relevant to the kinds of stories that are told in the twenty-first century; they are by no means outdated. In fact, as the subjects of these narratives begin to diversify, they find new life and value. After seeing Moonlight, I was reminded of these influences. Director Barry Jenkins’ new film chronicles the identity struggle of a kid named Chiron. It’s a story told in three parts at ages nine, sixteen, and twenty-six. The film is an intensely intimate portrayal of colossal emotions, a passionate portrait of the pressures placed upon a black man’s sexuality and masculinity, and a depiction of the perilous struggle to accept who we are despite what we want to be. Moonlight opened in theaters to near unanimous critical acclaim. It’s a unique film that depicts an underrepresented story in a way that is both visually dynamic and thematically profound. It’s the most recent example of a film engaging with Greek myth as a technique for strengthening and shaping its narrative.

In Greek mythology, Chiron is known as the wounded healer, a wise teacher, and a prophet. He was a centaur born from the violent rape of the nymph Philyra by the god Cronus. Both his parents abandon him - his father out of apathy, his mother out of disgust. Later, he’s adopted by Apollo who trained Chiron in the areas of prophecy and logic, medicine and healing. However, unlike traditional centaurs who had the lower body of a horse and the upper body of a man, Chiron’s front legs were human - contributing significantly to Chiron’s shame and struggle to belong. In the myth, during a friendly wrestling match with Hercules, Chiron is accidentally pierced by an arrow coated in toxic blood. As the son of a god, the wound could not kill Chiron. Instead, he was cursed to endure the physical agony of the wound in tandem with the psychological trauma of parental abandonment. In the end, Chiron offered himself to Zeus as a replacement for Prometheus, who’d been condemned to an endless cycle of torture after stealing fire from Mount Olympus. By taking Prometheus’ place, Chiron is able to end his own eternal suffering.

It’s impossible not to see the influence of the Greek myth of Chiron on Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Moonlight's Chiron takes an emotional journey that is clearly informed by the Greek myth; in doing so, the film adds greater depth and complexity to the characters and their journey.

Chiron’s introduction in Moonlight is a shot of him running from a group of bullies toward an abandoned building. He locks himself inside, hiding from his peers, surrounded by broken glass and drug paraphernalia. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who later returns Chiron to his mother, Paula. Paula and Philyra, both mothers of their own Chiron share some particularly important characteristics. They both give birth to a child with an absent father. In the Greek myth, the god Cronus is apathetic to the woman he has raped, leaving her to deal with their son alone. In Moonlight, Paula never even addresses Chiron’s biological father; there are certain implications, but it clear that Chiron has no father figure in his life. Moreover, both mother’s struggle with their son’s differences. In the Greek myth, the Chiron is a centaur with two human legs. In Moonlight, Chiron is gay. This manifests itself in several different ways, but for Paula, it’s a difference that makes it difficult for her to appropriately provide emotional support for her child, thereby contributing further to isolation that Chiron experiences at a young age. Later in a confrontation between Paula and Juan, she asks him,

“You gonna be the one to tell him why he walks like this? Why the other boys always picking on him? You gonna be the one to tell him? You gonna tell him?”

Paula’s inability to properly connect with Chiron emotionally stunts their relationship. She harbors obvious resentment toward her child, as he symbolizes to her the double-edged sword of failed motherhood and dissatisfaction with the man he is growing up to be. In one sequence, Chiron stands in front of his mother and she yells at him. The scene plays out over total silence. Jenkin’s follows this scene up with a scene between Juan, Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, and Chiron. Chiron asks, “What does faggot mean?” The clear implication is that Paula has used this word and directed it at her own son. Juan answers, “A faggot is what people call gay people to make them feel bad about themselves.” This moment plays out with pitch perfect grace and honesty, symbolizing Paula’s abandonment and rejection of her son. Her inability to love him for who he is and to provide the necessary support ultimately drives him away.

The similarities between Moonlight Chiron and the greek myth of Chiron extend beyond their origin stories. During the film’s second act, Chiron is sixteen and navigating the agonies of high school. In what is no doubt the film’s most important scene, Chiron goes to the beach after getting kicked out his house and runs into his friend Kevin. After getting high on weed, the two boys kiss and Kevin gives Chiron a hand job. This scene operates as an emotional peak for Chiron - not only is it the first time he’s been with a man, but it’s the first time he’s truly confronted a piece of his identity that’s been repressed.

This moment in Chiron’s journey feels uncannily related to when the mythical Chiron is stabbed by a poisoned arrow while wrestling with Hercules. Both moments depict two men sharing physical and emotional intimacy, only to end with bodily and psychological trauma. In the greek myth, this trauma takes the form of an external wound that will never heal. In Moonlight, Chiron’s intimacy with Kevin opens an internal wound, one that leads to inexorable internal turmoil as seen in both acts two and three of the film. When Chiron sees Kevin again when they are both twenty-six, he says to him, “You’re the only man who’s ever touched me.” Chiron’s admission of this fact highlights the significance of his intimacy with Kevin on the beach; for Chiron, that moment was him opening himself up to a part of his identity that he was fearful of, only to never return to it out of that same fear. The implication here is that, at twenty-six, Chiron has endured a decade of unrest in understanding and accepting his own identity. It’s a devastating journey that is not unlike a greek tragedy.

In Greek mythology, Chiron represents an individual’s deepest spiritual wounds and their struggle to heal them. In the myth, the source of Chiron’s spiritual wounds arise from both his abandonment at an early age and the elements of his identity that made him different from his peers. In Moonlight, Chiron shares these very same characteristics. These wounds define his identity struggle in a way that feels personal while also archetypal; this is Moonlight's genius. It magnifies an individual’s intimate struggle, without being exploitative, in a way that makes it universal. Ultimately, however, this is just one element contained within Moonlight. Chiron’s story is a desperately needed depiction of the interplay between race, masculinity, and sexuality. It’s ambitious in a way that films rarely are and it is nearly flawless in its execution. I make this point because I don’t want this analysis to be seen as reductive; this is one element of a film brimming with admirable and moving complexities. Yes, Moonlight is impressive in the way that it engages on an archetypal level. More than that, however, it succeeds in being a poetic, profound, and - most importantly - honest portrait of an underrepresented audience. It’s to them that this film belongs.