The Real Ones: An Annotated Exploration of ‘Moonlight’ via Frank Ocean’s “Nikes”

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Needless to say, 2016 was a taxing year, and 2017 is turning out to be even more so. Artistic expression, however, has long played the yin to oppression’s yang, and not for the first time — nor, likely, the last — in 2016, it was African-American voices who carried much of the weight of resistance.

Last year was a banner year for black excellence, in which a perhaps unprecedented number of artists shone across the cultural spectrum. Last year witnessed the return of legends Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest; the consistent mastery of Wesley Morris, Ava DuVernay and Ta-Nehisi Coates; the continued dominance of superstars Beyoncé and Kanye West; and inevitable breakouts from Solange Knowles, Donald Glover, Issa Rae and Devonté Hynes. But two particular projects rose above the rest: Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde.

Moonlight was a long time coming, and its success was only right. Amid programming films at the Telluride Film Festival, working as a staff writer on The Leftovers, directing commercials, working as a carpenter, and writing shelved scripts, eight whole years had passed since Jenkins’s San Franciscan debut, Medicine for Melancholy. Ocean, on the other hand, was coming off a seemingly endless hiatus, during which fans and media alike grew rabid for a follow-up to 2012’s near-perfect Channel Orange. Unsurprisingly then, both Jenkins’s and Ocean’s returns played out as events.

The oft-delayed, mythically-hyped Blonde had the internet in an effortless half nelson: there was the teasing late-night carpentry tutorial, the release of Endless, Blonde‘s surprise Apple-exclusive premiere the following day, and the accompanying Boys Don’t Cry zine pop-up shops. Moonlight garnered vocal support in a more grassroots manner, through Twitter and word of mouth on the festival circuit. In Toronto alone, it received the biggest opening in the existence of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and even had local businesses eagerly spreading the word.

These two releases stood out on the basis of zeitgeist-tapping and artistic merit alone, but they’ve also frequently been paired for their novel, nuanced reconstructions of black masculinity. Decades after the limelight of films like Tongues Untied and Paris is Burning, and artists such as RuPaul and Frankie Knuckles, Blonde and Moonlight provided two timely, black, queer narratives. And they did so on a stage of incomparable magnitude, in close proximity to Nate Parker’s vow of refusal to play gay roles, which would supposedly “preserve the black man.”

So maybe association between Ocean’s work and Jenkins’s is inevitable. The reliably observant film critic David Ehrlich dubbed MoonlightCarol by way of Frank Ocean.” Jenkins himself confessed to writing Moonlight‘s screenplay to Slim K’s chopped and screwed rework of Ocean’s Channel Orange. Boldest of all, Minnesota’s Uptown Theater marquee went so far as to call the film “a Frank Ocean song for the eyes.” A curious comparison, that.

But despite the superficial parallels, Frank Ocean’s lush songwriting and production stylings seem more suited to soundtracking the decadence of, say, Sofia Coppola’s films. What does a single like “Nikes” — with its materialistic allusions to sneakers, Giuseppe Zanotti heels, Balmain jeans, NASCAR ads, and Jenny Holzer tees — have to do with the tale of Chiron, which catalogs an impoverished black boy coming to terms with his homosexuality?

Look closer, and you’ll see that “Nikes” is more complicated than its title and a cursory synopsis. Its dense, evocative lyrics are a stream of consciousness, non sequitur at times, guided by emotion rather than logic or reason — and astoundingly vivid. It’s an approach certainly not unlike that of… director Barry Jenkins. And so, with the Oscars looming, it’s worthwhile to investigate Moonlight through the lens of Frank Ocean’s “Nikes.”

Special shout-out to the icon dynasty, Slip-n-Slide Records

The video version of “Nikes” opens with Frank Ocean paying verbal homage to Slip-n-Slide Records, the Florida rap label that jumpstarted the careers of Trick Daddy and Trina. The latter’s cameo appearance in the video immediately solidifies a tangible link to the personal life of Barry Jenkins. As fate would have it, all three creatives happened to attend Miami Northwestern High School, one of the numerous autobiographical elements Jenkins sprinkled into his Moonlight script. Based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue — an unproduced play by MacArthur Genius Grant-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney — the film’s screenplay and its protagonist were made up of shared, as well as distinctive, details from the lives of both writers.

Although not acquainted until adulthood, Jenkins and McCraney — both children of drug-addicted mothers — were concurrently raised in Miami’s Liberty Square housing projects. Moonlight‘s Teresa, Chiron’s de facto godmother (played by Janelle Monáe), was heavily inspired by Jenkins’s childhood guardian, Minerva. Likewise, McCraney’s sexual orientation played a key factor in the conception of Chiron’s character. This process parallels Frank Ocean’s development of Blonde — in an interview with the New York Times, he explains that, inspired by a friend, he felt compelled to “talk about the way I grew up more.” In the same interview, he adds, “I wrote Channel Orange in two weeks. The end product wasn’t always that gritty, real-life depiction of the real struggle that happened.”

Pour up for A$AP (rest in peace)/ RIP Pimp C (rest in peace)

To intentionally jarring effect, Ocean employs three distinct, competing voices on “Nikes.” One of these disassociating intonations is noticeably pitched down, perhaps revealing a conflicted, interrupting conscience; another is pitched up, signifying a heightened, potentially effeminate quality; and a third is unadulterated, “normal,” and decidedly masculine. This creative choice plays in tandem with the decision to spell the album’s title as the feminine Blonde in print, but to stylize it as the male Blond on its artwork. Similarly, it could also be likened to his alternating singing and rapping on the track in question. Could these gestures be a nod to Frank Ocean’s bi-curiosity? To the female groupies and the male lover he croons about here?

This representation of tangled personalities mirrors Moonlight’s triptych structure and the three identities Chiron wrestles with: “Little”(Alex R. Hibbert), the perceptive child becoming aware of gender performativity and discrimination; “Chiron”(Ashton Sanders), the misunderstood adolescent reluctantly embracing his innate desires (hence his real name, not a moniker); and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), the repressed, outwardly hyper-masculine adult paralyzed by institutional coding.

Equally noteworthy at this intersection are the victims of lean overdoses Frank Ocean mourns in the first verse, especially given the slowed vocals that follow the utterance of their names. The vocal pitching or “screwing” technique Ocean experiments with here was initially popularized by Houston legend DJ Screw, who died by overdosing on the same “pink-gold lemonades” that claimed the abovementioned victims, A$AP Yams and Pimp C.

Moonlight’s flawlessly curated and geographically apt soundtrack was also heavily influenced by this culture (and southern rap in general). Jenkins’s use of chopped and screwed versions of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” and Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” as well as Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy,” captures the regional mood impeccably. The vibe is kept so consistent that even segments of Nicholas Britell’s Arvo Pärt-inspired original score are given the screwed treatment. Much like Moonlight’s hazy sonic palette and impressionistic cinematography, Om’Mas Keith’s woozy production and lethargic percussion give “Nikes” a vulnerable, memory-like texture.

That my little cousin, he got a little trade/ His girl keep the scales, a little mermaid/ We out by the pool, some little mermaids/ Me and them gel/ Like Twigs with them bangs/ Now that’s a real mermaid/ You been holding your breath/ Weighted down

Both Frank Ocean and Chiron are accustomed to the drug trade. Applying a brilliant metaphor, Ocean links scales to the anatomy of sea creatures, while simultaneously associating them with the weighing and storage of narcotics. Though the neighborhood kingpin is not Chiron’s cousin, these rhymes are reminiscent of his father figure, Juan — portrayed by Mahershala Ali in a career-best turn — and his girlfriend, Janelle Monáe’s Teresa. Teresa, who is never explicitly involved with Juan’s dealings, continues to endure courageously while benefiting from the operation well after Juan’s haunting death. Caught between the two worlds of losing Juan and nurturing Chiron, she adjusts resiliently to sea and air — “a real mermaid,” if you will.

Conversely, symbolically speaking, Chiron has been holding his breath, “weighted down” in his unforgiving adolescence. Akin to the naked woman trapped inside a fish tank in Tyrone Lebon’s video treatment for “Nikes,” Chiron is a teenager without a safe haven. Apart from Juan and Teresa’s generosity, there’s no escape. All spheres of life fail him. He’s bullied for his mannerisms and tight clothes at school, neglected by his drug-addled mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and, ultimately, imprisoned by the code of Liberty City’s streets. Worst of all, he feels like an alien in his own skin. “Sorry,” he murmurs to his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), after engaging him in sexual contact.

Chiron’s characterization is further enriched by Jenkins’s clever incorporation of Greek mythology. According to legend, the perpetually-wounded Chiron, son of titan Cronus, was forsaken by his nymph mother (i.e. Paula) due to his centauric guise, and adopted by Artemis and Apollo (i.e. Teresa and Juan). As the child of a god, however, Chiron was more reserved and sensitive than other centaurs. A categorical anomaly, he was an outcast in every realm.

The double meaning behind Frank Ocean’s repetition of Nike(s) in the song’s chorus is analogous to Moonlight’s use of Greek lore. The first time around, he sings, “These bitches want Nikes/ They looking for a check,” obviously referring to the brand giant and the materialistic values it promotes. But the second time, Ocean switches to, “All you want is Nikes/ But the real ones.” In this instance, he seems to be denoting the search for the winged goddess of victory, as substantiated by her presence in the single’s video.

In Greek mythology, the celestial Nike flew across war zones in her chariot, showering winners with praise and declaring them triumphant. The parable corresponds fittingly to Chiron’s own quest for “real” personal glory, which remains forever one step ahead of his grasp. For all the worldly possessions he’s attained as grown-up “Black,” Chiron yearns for the acceptance and basic human connection that elude him. Though he briefly reunites with both his rehab-committed mother and the far-flung Kevin (played later in life by André Holland), neither approve of his illegitimate trapping lifestyle. “That’s not you,” they both assert, identically. A recurring image from the “Nikes” video — one of black bodies lying on money, with cash also covering their reproductive organs — echoes this impotence.

Weed crumbles into glitter/ Rain, glitter/ We laid out on this wet floor/ Away turf, no Astro

We only human and it’s humid in these Balmains/ I mean my balls sticking in my jeans/ We breathin’ pheromones, Amber Rose

This intoxicating, imagery-laden passage, the sole verse sung in Frank Ocean’s actual, unmodified voice, also evokes Chiron’s first foray into sexual expression. For the only time in either Moonlight or Blonde, both participants are stripped bare to their unconcealed essence. Uncannily, Ocean’s lyrics render the scene he’s discussing nearly indistinguishable from Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton’s depiction of Chiron’s experience: after yet another merciless high school day, Chiron seeks solace at the beach, away from the contained Liberty City ecosystem. There, he bumps into Kevin, kindling surely the most tangibly immersive sequence of the year. Laxton cultivates the ambience with utmost attention to minor detail. In vivid, high-contrast lighting, he captures the floating embers of Kevin’s blunt, the damp evening sand, the humidity of the Floridian summer night, and the merciful breeze rustling the leaves of surrounding trees. The atmosphere is so palpable, you could taste it.

Laxton frames the boys as if they’re the only souls in the universe, while deifying their dark skin tone with pastel-like illumination. For a fleeting wrinkle in time, Miami delivers on its sunlit pretenses; the crushing weight of Chiron’s ubiquitous oppression evaporates into thin air. “Man, sometimes I cry so much I think I’mma turn to drops,” Chiron confides in Kevin. Dialogue-free, Claire-Denis-by-way-of-Hype-Williams glances and touches ensue. Tension is broken as they kiss in close-up. Kevin begins unzipping Chiron’s ill-fitting jeans, a stark socioeconomic juxtaposition to Ocean’s unaffordable Balmains. One hand tightly grips the encompassing sand; another runs through it. An intimately ethereal snapshot is immediately seared into the viewer’s memory bank.

In one of the most dexterously-handled scenes of recent vintage, Jenkins pulls off an honest-to-god revolutionary feat. He doesn’t just show two black men kissing on a mainstream platform; he does so compassionately and unapologetically. It’s every bit as groundbreaking as Frank Ocean’s eyeliner-accented Freddy Mercury glam fit in his “Nikes” video. (Or his pre-Channel Orange coming-out Tumblr letter, for that matter.) An illustrative sample of Moonlight as a whole, the beach sequence virtually plays like a Bechdel Test for black and LGBT subjects. No hetero or white saviors, no reactions to white hatred. Nothing but authentic representation, agency, and portrayal.

Don’t know what got into people/ Devil be possessin’ homies/ Demons try to body jump/ Why you think I’m in this bitch wearing a fucking yarmulke?

Is nothing sacred? In Chiron’s developmental years, nothing was. A decade following Kevin’s reluctant, but cowardly betrayal in a violent game of “Knock Down, Stay Down,” Chiron – now played by Trevante Rhodes – finds himself a changed, paradox of a man. Living in Georgia after a stint in juvenile hall for his retaliation on classroom bully Terrel, Chiron gets involved with selling drugs. Yet another institution fails him, as he is unjustly jailed and, like a cog in the machine, propelled into a life of crime.

Caught up in the cycle of America’s deliberately suppressive War on Drugs, he now refuses to be physically harmed, at the very least. Built like a tank and nearly unrecognizable, he bears a closer resemblance to 50 Cent or Rodney Stuckey than the scrawny teen of his youth. Driving all the way back to Miami – undoubtedly listening to Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You” and pondering unrequited love in a scene left on the cutting room floor – Chiron prepares for a reunion with the only person he’s ever expressed affection toward. Jaded by past deceit, and thus armored, he nevertheless longs for Kevin’s carnal and emotional embrace.

Before stepping into Kevin’s diner, Chiron parks Juan’s old, yet mint-condition Chevy Impala. The same gold crown remains on the dash. Like the once-innocent Michael Corleone, he’s followed in his father figure’s well-intentioned, but complicated footsteps — the same footsteps that indirectly robbed Chiron of his own mother’s care. “Classic Man” blares out of the sound system, while his grills, earring, chain, and Rollie glisten in the pitch-back night. Immaculately groomed, he hops out the car and brushes his hair. Chiron’s clothes can barely contain his hyper-masculine physique, but his carefully rehearsed walk shows finesse. These are his protective yarmulkes. This is his overcompensated façade, his camouflage for the violent, homophobic jungle he has no choice but to inhabit.

Moonlight has been described as a love story, but a visual bildungsroman seems more accurate. Here’s an account of a survivor, stripped of his identity, crippled by manmade constructs, alienated by every imaginable institution, forced to merely exist rather than actually live. Life continues to pass him by, as past traumas paralyze his ability to explore his sexuality. A haunted and conditioned interior prevents him from seeking pleasure for fear of any further scarring. He’s frozen in place, wrestling unimaginable repression.

When Kevin finally re-enters the picture, he notices Shy-rone “still can’t put more than three sentences together.” After disclosing he’s had a child with a high school sweetheart, Kevin asks Chiron if he remembers the moment they shared together on the beach. Not realizing the pivotal, yet thorny impact the night had on Chiron’s life, Kevin’s revelation juxtaposes the two separate paths taken since. “You’re the only man who ever touched me,” Chiron admits. Kevin holds him.

We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first

True to his outspoken nature, Kevin refuses to shy away from honesty upon seeing Chiron for the first time in ten years. “Who is you, Chiron? The fronts… It’s not what I expected.” Wounded, Chiron retorts, “What did you expect?”

But just what did Kevin expect? For Chiron to be more effeminate? To not be trapping? Are violence, selling drugs, and crime intrinsically masculine? Does masculinity have a specific look or set of rules? How are gay black men supposed to behave? These questions have no finite answers, but they spark serious food for thought — not just for Kevin, but for society’s expectations of performed social roles. Herein lies the brilliance of Barry Jenkins and Frank Ocean.

What is R&B supposed to sound like? If there was ever a box, Ocean took a hammer to it with Blonde. Drawing on inspiration from eclectic sources — Elliott Smith, The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, and Todd Rundgren — he’s completely redefined the genre. The same can be said for his filmmaking counterpart. In stitching together the queer anti-love story of Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, the triptych structure of Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Three Times, and the sexual repression of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail to form the whole that is Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has repurposed Asian and European sensibilities to create an unmissable new voice in black cinema. While the masses prophesy, Ocean and Jenkins see the future first. Hopefully, it’s one that’s roused to fight for acceptance in a world hell bent on hatred and exclusion.

Marko Orlic is a film industry professional, culture writer, podcaster, and occasional DJ who lives in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.

Illustrator Alex Sheriff, a visual artist and graduate of New York’s Parsons School of Design, currently resides in Los Angeles. His first solo show at Praxis New York, “Fish on Land,” is open now.