The Tinged Aftermath of Trauma in Moonlight 

I don’t like remembering that feeling.
It was like having a sinkhole open up and swallow you –
not only you, but your house, your room, your past,
everything you’d ever known about yourself,
even the way you looked –
it was falling and smothering and darkness, all at once.”
— Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (185)

Tell me, what is the color of home?”
— Meena Alexander, Quickly Changing River: Poems (22)

Fig. 1. Still from the movie Moonlight (2016) featuring Trevante Rhodes as Chiron. Screenshot.


            In February 2017, the Oscar for Best Picture went to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), a film about growing up in Miami as a queer black male based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical work In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue(n.d.). Structured in three chapters, the film subtly narrativizes the growth of its main character Chiron through three different stages of his life. In doing so it carefully dissects the hardships associated with the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality. However, while heralded for many things, among which its script, acting and nuance, it was perhaps just as much Moonlight’s cinematographical excellence that caught the critics’ attention, as its aesthetic project is one of textured beauty, blackness and colour (Boyce Gillespie 52). It is especially the colour blue that has a special place at the heart of the film. Whether Chiron is navigating a hostile school environment or his feelings for a male friend, the world is filled with blue details and blue light. However, it is only when Chiron relives his addicted mother’s rage and unpredictability that the screen becomes absolutely saturated with the colour, and the audience almost enters into it. Paying attention to both colour and the aftermath of trauma, what crystallizes is a painful current that runs throughout the film, starting at the moment of initial trauma when Chiron was just a child and continuing in the shape of flashbacks and sleepless nights immersed in blue.
            Thinking trauma and colour together, this begs the question: how may we come to understand the use of colour, and particularly the colour blue, in relation to the traumatic events that shaped Chiron’s life?

Part I: The Initial Trauma

            During the first thirty minutes of Moonlight(2016), we are introduced to Chiron or “Little”: a small black boy with a blue backpack the size of his torso. He is chased by a group of taller boys that are out to “get his gay ass” (Moonlight 00:02:34), but finds himself saved and taken home by Juan, a friendly black man played by Mahershala Ali. When Chiron sits down at his dining table, it is his body language that takes center stage: the boy’s gaze is averted, his head turned down and he barely utters a word. From there on, it does not take many scenes for the audience to understand that Chiron’s situation is rather complicated: not only is he bullied at school, he is also raised by his highly unpredictable, addicted mother Paula, who seems above all preoccupied with finding ways to buy more drugs. While there are several scenes in which she acts erratically, for example fights with Juan and yells at her son, it is at the exact half hour mark of the film that we witness a scene that is distinctly different, one that, as we will learn later, leaves traumatic traces that will follow Chiron far into his adulthood.
            While fast-paced, tense classical music starts to swell, time on the other hand seems to slow down, and we get a glimpse of the true impact of Paula’s behaviour. The scene begins with a medium shot of Chiron facing the camera, standing eerily still in the kitchen. His expression is solemn, and his eyes are focused on something we cannot see until the camera cuts to his mother, who is standing in a hallway saturated with pink light that is flooding in from her bedroom. It is clear that we have just caught them in the middle of something, “just after something” (Jenkins 28). While Paula too is standing eerily still, one can almost feel her pulsating rage as she is looking at her son. The camera then cuts to Chiron, who seems nailed to the ground, only to cut back to Paula right before she snaps and launches her upper body forward. All of a sudden, time moves at normal speed again and what follows is a frightening tirade. When the camera cuts back to Chiron, we watch him look down until the yelling has stopped. Looking up, he does not say a word, but his face speaks volumes; “he is lost” (Jenkins 29). Paula then walks backwards into her room, keeping her angry gaze focused on the boy, and it is only when she closes the door that he silently walks out of the frame, defeated. 

Fig. 2. Still from the movie Moonlight (2016) featuring Alex R. Hibbert as Chiron. Screenshot.

Fig. 3. Still from the movie Moonlight (2016) featuring Naomie Harris as Paula. Screenshot.

            In more than one way, the scene stands apart from the rest of the film. While most scenes are saturated in light to deep blue hues and know many blue details, the colours are rather different here. Whenever the camera is on Chiron, the colours of his surroundings are warm and intense, but realistic. This in contrast to whenever the camera is on Paula, when the shot is overtaken by the strong pink light from her bedroom that colours the hallway in violent shades of pink, purple and violet. Moreover, while the audience can see what is happening from Chiron’s perspective, we cannot hear what he hears. The only sound available to us is the swell of the music: an anxious violin that briefly stops at the moment before the impact and continues immediately afterwards. Finally, there is the way time is slowed down both before and after Paula launches into her avalanche of anger. Taken together, these three elements suggest a different type of temporality or headspace; one in which “the engulfing deluge of Paula’s emotions” (Gates 39) overtake not only her, but also her son and the atmosphere between them. They culminate in a scene with great disruptive force, one that suggests nothing if not silent, but all-encompassing terror.  
            One key element of Moonlight that is important in relation to this scene, is the structure of the film. As director Barry Jenkins puts it in an interview for Film Quarterly, Moonlight is dictated not by the linearity of the plot, but by Chiron’s consciousness (55), meaning that the audience experiences the world as he does and that whenever he is disturbed, we are too. Considering this, the disruptive force of the scene –the intensity and different use of colour, the absence of sound and the peculiar flow of time - might be interpreted as a disruption of consciousness. Following Sigmund Freud, the most profound function of consciousness is to shield a person from “the imposing stimuli of a hostile world” (Caruth 9). It does so by placing them in an organized experience of time, neatly mapped away in memory. However, an event or stimulus may come too quickly at a person not prepared to take them in, breaching the consciousness’ protective shield and disrupting the mind’s experience of time (10). This is what causes trauma. It is not the direct perception of danger that disrupts the psyche, but the fact that the danger is identified a moment too late and the body experiences terror and helplessness while the mind is not quite there yet (10). It is this lack of experience that freezes a person in time, often becoming a basis of repetition in the shape of flashbacks, both awake and asleep (10), something that will indeed happen to Chiron in Moonlight.

Part II: Haunted by Memory / Stuck in Time

            Both the crucial role of the scene and its traumatic nature become apparent upon its return many years later, when a teenage Chiron has just been hauled away in a police car after he has broken a chair on his bully’s back. When the once again nervous classical music drops, the camera cuts to a black screen. For a moment we are in complete silence and darkness, but soon the violin starts to swell again, and red flecks begin to appear against the black background. When the camera cuts we are back at the scene of the initial trauma: the corridor drenched in violet. However, this time, the action of the scene is reversed as time moves backwards: it begins with Paula retreating from her bedroom in slow-motion, followed by the drop of the music and finally her launch forward towards the camera. Moreover, this time we do not see Chiron, we only watch Paula from his perspective. We do however get to hear what she shouts: a deafening “don’t look at me” (01:06:00). The camera cuts directly after these words and interestingly does not return to the little boy, nor to a teenage Chiron, but to a grown man lunging towards us from his bed. He is sweating profusely and gasping for air; it is apparent that he has just woken up from a nightmare. When the camera cuts for the last time, it lingers on his imposing back as his face is submerged in a sink filled with ice. Most of all, however, we see blue. Blue light saturating the room to an extent that the world, even if just for a moment, is completely flushed in that one colour.  
            Contrary to what people have believed for a long time, trauma is not simply an event that occurred in the past, nor is it all in one’s head. It is an imprint left by an experience that is inscribed on the mind, brain and body (van der Kolk 341). This has ongoing consequences for how a human lives in the present, as the experience tends to manifest itself time and again in the shape of nightmares, flashbacks and other forms of timeless reexperiencing of images, sounds, bodily sensations and emotions (127). Moreover, the return or activation of these fragments of a memory are not in the control of the traumatized, especially not during sleep when the mind cannot be actively repressed. The early pioneers in the field of trauma study such as Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet and Jean-Martin Charcot referred to the traumatic memories as “mental parasites” (Breuer and Freud 76) or “pathogenic secrets” (Ribot 108), because however much the traumatized wanted to forget what had happened to them, the memories kept thrusting themselves into consciousness, trapping them in “an ever-renewing present of existential horror” (van der Kolk 327).
            Looking at the scene of the initial trauma and the flashback scene in Moonlight through the lens of trauma theory sheds light on the warped temporality that characterizes the both of them. A defining feature of traumatic memory is its disorganized nature, pertaining most of all to the experience of time (van der Kolk 335). Under normal circumstances, the rational memory system that puts our experiences into order and remembers facts, statistics and vocabulary, works together with the emotional memory system that stores sound, touch and smell, and the emotions they evoke (89). However, both during a traumatic event and while reliving one, the rational region is deactivated, severely impacting the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and to translate our thoughts and feelings into words (90). Meanwhile, the emotional system, which is not under conscious control and cannot communicate in words, takes over, and the imprint of the traumatic experience is organized not as a coherent narrative with an orderly beginning, middle and end, but as isolated images, sounds and bodily sensations (307), as is the case in Moonlight’s flashback scene. This is why, as mentioned before, the body experiences fright, rage and helplessness, while the mind has no grip on time and cannot articulate its feelings, manifesting in silence among people but especially children who are traumatized (87). What happens then is that, by means of flashbacks and nightmares, the psyche turns itself into a vehicle for expressing a history it does not completely own or comprehend (Caruth 8).
            In light of temporality, one important difference between the first and the second scene is the absence of Chiron as a young boy. This difference gains significance when considering how parts of a traumatic experience appear unchanged by the passage of time when they are brought back into consciousness (van der Kolk 88). Brain scans made during a flashback show that the amygdala, the body’s alarm system, becomes activated just as if the event were happening, triggering powerful stress hormones and responses from the nervous system (114). At the same time, the thalamus, responsible for autobiographical memory, breaks down, meaning that the experience will not be remembered as a coherent story (128). What’s more, the right and left prefrontal cortexes, the body’s watchtowers, become deactivated, causing a person to lose their sense of time and become trapped in a moment with no sense of past, present nor future (127). Finally, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, essentially the timekeepers of the brain, are debilitated, meaning that the person experiencing a flashback feels as if the experience is interminable, without end (128). The result of the above is the sense that time becomes folded or warped, a merging of past and present wherein physically, you are transported back to that first moment. And indeed, the scan shows that the Brodmann’s area of the brain, the region in the visual cortex that registers an image when it first enters the brain, lights up (88). In other words, perhaps we do not see Chiron as a small boy in the flashback, because adult Chiron is not just witnessing what happened to him as a child, he is experiencing it as if it were the first time. He is there with Paula.

Part III: A World Flushed in Shades of Blue

            Trauma has a way of seeping into the lives of their sufferers, establishing a continuous, unrelenting presence in everything they do. It has an effect on the entire human organism, not in the last place by the uncertainty that flashbacks bring about. As seen in Moonlight on several occasions, flashbacks can occur at any given time, whether the person experiencing them is awake or asleep, triggered by anything remotely similar to the original experience, and lasting for an unknown amount of time (Wolynn 33). In a constant state of uncertainty, the world is experienced with a different nervous system as the body continuous to fight off invisible enemies and defend against a danger that belongs in the past (van der Kolk 101). This latent presence of trauma is a harrowing and exhausting ordeal, as all of the person’s energy is focused on the suppression of inner chaos at the expense of carefree involvement in their present lives, leaving no room for love, care and affection (101, 140). In other words:  “trauma has no discrete edges. It bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries” (Jamison 24). It has a way of colouring absolutely everything; our inner world and consequently our outer too.
            In the case of Moonlight this effect appears to be mirrored in its aesthetic project, as the world is literally coloured, flushed in shades of blue. The colour can be found in many details ranging from Juan’s blue Chevrolet to interior design and clothing choices. Most of all, however, it is found in the light. A blue hue is present throughout most of the film, intensifying in moments of pain and trauma, most notably in scenes revolving around sleep. Especially in the second scene under analysis here, when Chiron has just woken up from his returning nightmare, the blue is so present that it almost dissolves the boundaries between interior and exterior. It is as if one is standing in front of a Rothko painting and feels the colour physically, that straining of the mind, the sense of being so enveloped by a colour that one enters into it (Liron 00:20-00:35). Or, as Maggie Nelson put it while contemplating Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work: to find oneself trapped in a single bead, a coloured lens painting the world in its hue while life knows so many (31). It is something that according to him might be incredibly dangerous, deadly even.

Fig. 4. Still from the movie Moonlight (2016) featuring Trevante Rhodes as Chiron. Screenshot.

Fig. 5. Still from the movie Moonlight (2016) featuring Trevante Rhodes as Chiron. Screenshot.

            Blue is that one colour philosophers love to contemplate. There is just something about it. It has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye and even though the blue, like any colour, has no mind and cannot tell you anything, it draws people after it (Von Goethe 471-472). The shimmering turquoise of the ocean, the soft faded azure of the sky, the indigo that might almost be mistaken for black. Cerulean. Ultramarine. Cobalt. Blue is beautiful. As Wassily Kandinsky offers, it is the ultimate heavenly colour, capable of creating a feeling of rest (64). However, following Kandinsky, blue is also a colour of absolute ambiguity, for when it sinks to almost black, it might “echo a grief that is hardly human” (64). To see blue in deeper and deeper degrees of saturation is to eventually move towards darkness. While the sky might appear in awe-inspiring shades of blue, we also know that its colour depends on the black of the empty space behind it (Nelson 62). “The colour of any planet’s atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sun-like star will also be blue” (62), making the colour an experience, not unlike trauma, that is produced by both void and fire. A perfect metaphor for a moment that was skipped over in the mind, but hits the system nonetheless, breaking through the barriers with great force.
            The overwhelming feeling in Moonlightof being stuck in time, submerged by a traumatic past, is emphasized by the blue hue and similarly communicated by Emmylou Harris when she sang that there is “One thing they don’t tell you / about the blues / When you got ‘em / You keep on falling cause there / ain’t no bottom / there ain’t no end” (49 – 53). Whereas the memory of an unpleasant experience eventually fades for most people, traumatic memory cannot be neatly mapped away and continues to be triggered in the present. The dread persists, and traumatized people like Chiron indeed become stuck, held back in their growth because their painful experiences are not properly integrated into the ongoing stream of their lives (van der Kolk 93). Unable to bridge the gap between past and present, life is organized as if the trauma were still going on and thus every encounter is “contaminated by the past” (100). It takes an incredible amount of energy to keep functioning while simultaneously carrying the burden of terror, weakness and vulnerability, making it very difficult to fully and spontaneously engage in the day-to-day, to be fully alive in the present.

Part IV: The Importance of Intimacy

            As trauma is by definition unbearable and intolerable, most people will try to put it out of their minds, resorting to coping mechanisms such as numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol, practicing extreme sports or participating in excessive exercise (van der Kolk 123). In regard to this, Emma Keenan argues that Chiron, when he is grown up, uses the persona of Juan as his coping mechanism (6). Although we meet him waking up from a nightmare as if he were a drowning man, he is also a transformed man, one so muscular that he has become an anathema to the softness of his past. In the third and final part of Moonlight, Chiron drives a car reminiscent of Juan’s blue Chevrolet, wears gold fronts on his teeth and inspires fear in the young men that sell drugs for him (Boyce Gillespie 54). Following Keenan, adapting this hard exterior may be interpreted as a way of closing himself off from not only the trauma that he experienced growing up, but also from the people around him and his inner desires (6). It is a coping mechanism from the past that is doing him no favours in his present: he may be strong and tough, but he also lives alone, and the most important human presence in his life seem to be the many phone calls and voicemails left by his mother, interactions that lead him to work out frantically on his living room floor.
            This gets us to the heart of trauma’s tragic duality. On the one hand, trauma, whether it is the result of something you did to yourself or something that was done to you, almost always makes it difficult to engage in intimate relationships, as they require trust and vulnerability (van der Kolk 36). Many traumatized people find themselves “chronically out of sync with the people around them” (146), as if they were an alien among humans. On the other hand, however, humans are profoundly social creatures and intimacy and close relationships may hold the key to a more connected and grounded life (197). In fact, feeling safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health and one of the only things that will calm down a traumatized person’s physiology (146). The critical issue here is reciprocity: where trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, mirrored or taken into account, it is social support and being truly heard and seen by the people around us, that will help traumatized people heal and grow (146). However, no doctor is able to write prescriptions for friendship or love: these are complex capacities that are difficult to obtain.
            Turning back to Moonlight, despite the overwhelming sense of being isolated and stuck in a traumatic past during a large part of the film, there is a distinct shift towards the end, both when it comes to Chiron’s exchanges with his loved ones and in the overwhelming sense of blue, literally as well as figuratively. After several missed calls and pleading voicemails from Paula, the phone rings again, prompting Chiron to pick it up with slight irritation. However, on the other end of the line is not his mother, but his long-lost childhood friend and romantic interest, Kevin, who is asking him to have a meal in his restaurant. When the camera cuts, we get a few glimpses of Kevin smoking outside of his restaurant against a brightly lit yellow wall, a colour that is not insignificantly blue’s counterpart, the light to blue’s darkness, creating a stark contrast with Chiron’s bedroom (von Goethe 332). Then, when the camera cuts again, we are back with Chiron, waking up the next morning in a room that is uncharacteristically bathed in fresh morning light with no less than chirping birds in the background. The light is more natural, brighter, and the world seems to have regained some of its original colours.
             In a following scene, when Chiron sits down with his mother in the garden of a rehabilitation centre, they are surrounded by greenery, according to Wassily Kandinsky the most restful colour there is (65). It is an important moment in the film, as Paula, seemingly for the first time, tries to make amends with her son. While she used to be his tormentor, an erratic presence in his life, she is now older, a woman calm and in recovery, trying to make amends for the hardness she sees in her child: “the shield he had to build to survive her” (Boyce Gillespie 53). After Chiron mentions the nightmares that continue to haunt him and interrupt his sleep, Paula first tries a rational approach, telling him that he might need to talk to someone, perhaps even her, about this trouble sleeping. However, when she sees the hardness this provokes in him, she surprisingly takes it as a cue to apologize, to tell him how she “fucked it all the way up” (01:18:40), that she loves him, was not there for him when he needed her and that his heart does not have to be black like hers. It is a scene set up for relief and release: they both cry and Chiron finally embraces her. As he drives away, the blue hue seems to have been lifted, exchanged for green trees, green grass, a grey road and a faded sky more grey than blue.  

Part V: Warm Hues Enter the Scene

            The following scenes with Kevin are even more confrontational and intimate and do a beautiful job at showing both the difficulty and merit of vulnerability. When Chiron pulls up, the evening has fallen, and he is about to step into the warm yellow and brown hues of Kevin’s restaurant. It is an all-American diner with leather booths, red and white checkered curtains and art deco lamps, breathing a sense of absolute normalcy. Kevin cooks for Chiron, who has once again gone quiet, only loosening up much later when they are laughing together in his car and thereafter in Kevin’s house, a place once again filled with warm light, wooden details and children’s drawings. More than anything, the scene shows how difficult it is for Chiron to open up, to talk about himself and show even the slightest hint of vulnerability. It is something Kevin notices as well, and he consequently asks Chiron who he really is, behind the golden teeth, the expensive car, the persona he so carefully constructed for himself to keep the world at arm’s length. “Who is you Chiron?” (01:41:40). It is a question Chiron tries to shrug off, telling him “Who, me? I’m me, man. I ain’t tryin’ to be nothin’ else” (01:41:43). Then Kevin asks him whether he remembers the last time they saw each other, and Chiron responds that for a long time, he mostly tried to forget about those days in the past. Explaining that he mainly wanted to “built himself from the ground up, built himself hard (01:42:56), he is essentially telling Kevin how the trauma made him the closed-off man he is today. 
            Although it seems as if Chiron’s protective shield cannot be breached, a pivotal moment occurs right after, when he returns Kevin’s question and asks him about his life. Without going into the specifics that got him incarcerated, Kevin talks about how he never did what he wanted to do before and how he now has a son and eighteen more months on probation in the restaurant. “Some real shit” (01:43:45) in Chiron’s eyes, but he is quickly corrected, as Kevin tells him about the beauty of a normal life, one that comes with exhaustion and little money, but without the worries he had before: “that’s that real shit” (01:44:11). Kevin is not maintaining a persona or hiding behind a shield of toughness and it is only then, confronted with honesty and vulnerability, that Chiron lets his guard down as well and speaks from the heart, perhaps for the first time in the film. He tells Kevin that he is the only man who has ever touched him and that he has never touched anyone since. For a moment they are both quiet, Kevin is processing, Chiron almost trembling from his own vulnerability and honesty. Then Kevin smiles and the camera fades into the penultimate scene, one absolutely saturated with warm yellow-brown light, in which the two men sit together in close embrace. It is a scene of true intimacy, with Chiron’s head on Kevin’s shoulder, Kevin’s hand caressing his head and then pulling him tightly towards him as Chiron closes his eyes with a visible sense of calmness.

Fig. 6. Still from the movie Moonlight (2016) featuring Trevante Rhodes as Chiron and André Holland as Kevin. Screenshot.


            Even decades after a traumatic experience has ended, people still have enormous difficulty to explain to others what happened to them. Even though their bodies continue to re-experience the terror, the rage, the helplessness and the impulse to either fight or run, their feelings remain almost impossible to articulate (van der Kolk 394). Trauma drives us to “the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past” (87). While often remaining seemingly unchanged on the outside, both body and brain are altered, and the world is experienced differently, in different hues than before. Trauma, like colour, is inexpressible. There are no instruments to measure it, no way to truly grasp what it is, where it is. Like Maggie Nelson asks about the colour blue: “Can it die? Does it have a heart?” (15) and perhaps most importantly, “how to recover from it?” (82). Given that there is no returning to a pre-traumatic state, does that mean the world simply remains blue, saturated interminably, unchangeably?
            As trauma has no straightforward presence, it will yield no straightforward answers, and neither does Moonlight.However, the film does provide hope, as the blue in the film is not the bottomless blue Emmylou Harris sang about in “Red Dirt Girl”. In Moonlight, the world ultimately does regain some of its natural hues, and it is intimacy that functions as catalyst. Paula’s earnest apology. Kevin’s call. A moment of physical intimacy between mother and son. An old love revisited. Honest words spoken. Even though pervasive feelings of dread and unsafety may cover the world in a blanket, the touch of a loved one may pull you back, reestablish you as present and alive right now, a mere observer no more (van der Kolk 342). It was James Baldwin, in The Devil Finds Work: An Essay (1976), who wrote about the connotative capacity of touch and vaguely offered that it lies at the root of the word homosexual “since any human touch can change you” (134).
            Far from unrequited, the expression of love in the penultimate scene of Moonlightis tender and intimate, and what prevails is not lust but affection and above all an all-encompassing feeling of warmth and calm. After Chiron closes his eyes, the camera cuts and we are back with him as a young boy. He is facing the ocean, but the blue on the screen is not that of the water. Wading through the blue hue, the camera moves closer until we arrive at a medium shot of Chiron’s back and he suddenly looks over his shoulder, straight into the camera. His head is held high and there are no more traces of fear or solemnness in his eyes. He is steadily holding our gaze until the screen turns black, the ultimate neutral upon which all other colours may flourish.

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