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Youth Crime in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” Film Essay

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Updated: May 16th, 2021


“Childhood, adolescence and adulthood are not simply direct descriptions of certain stages of life, but concepts whose meanings and applications shift contextually and politically” (Raby, 2006, p. 9). The motion picture Moonlight exhibits the introspect reality of this statement as it shows the development of a young African-American male transitioning through various stages of youth. The film uses a triptych storytelling format to highlight the contexts and events in the protagonist’s life, emphasizing potent socio-political and personal themes. Moonlight perpetuates the dramatic context of a vicious cycle of crime that apprehends racial and sexual minorities due to forced violence, discrimination, and lack of adequate social support structures.

Summary and Incidences of Crime

The motion picture is divided into three parts, each showing a period in the life of the protagonist Chiron. The first part shows formative childhood years where Chiron is bullied and alienated from his peers due to strange behavior. He is growing up in an inner-city neighborhood raised by a single mother who is gradually slipping into drug use. A chance encounter introduces Chiron to a local drug dealer Juan which becomes a mentor to him. Despite Juan’s good intentions for the boy, his drug dealing is impacting the neighborhood as Chiron’s mother ends up using; thus, unable to provide a supportive environment at home.

The next part focuses on Chiron’s adolescent years which places him in a troubled psychological state. He is discovering his sexuality, realizing suspicions that he is gay. However, at home, he is faced with hate and abuse from his drug addict mother without a support system in place. Meanwhile, at school, Chiron is continuously bullied by another guy for his specific tastes and supposed homosexuality. Despite active threats, neither the school nor Chiron’s classmate’s act. Eventually, an incident occurs which leads to Chiron being violently beaten. The next day, Chiron comes into the classroom and brutally hits the bully with a chair, leading to him being arrested.

The final segment transitions into Chiron’s young adult years. He now lives in Atlanta and is a high-level drug dealer. The movie references that after the arrest, Chiron was sent to a juvenile prison where he encountered someone who introduced him to the business. After a series of calls from his mother and teenage love interest, Chiron returns to Miami. It is evident that he is forced to maintain a macho and aggressive façade. An honest conversation with his mother reveals that her behavior strongly affected Chiron’s psyche. Meanwhile, an emotionally intimate encounter with his high school friend revealed that Chiron had chosen to hide his sexuality for years (Romanski, Gardner, Kleiner, & Jenkins, 2016).

Social Theory

Moonlight’s plot and themes actively support the social “youth at risk” theory. In general, the term implies any circumstances or environment where youth are more vulnerable to problematic behavior. This can include failing academics, substance abuse, violence, juvenile delinquency as well as mental health disorders. Sociology research often focuses on risk with a focus on individual factors (epidemiology) and the social environment which can create conditions that predispose youth to behaviors with severe negative outcomes (Jenson & Fraser, 2004).

The film’s considerable focus is on childhood and adolescence, both of which are critically formative years for a person’s psyche, moral standards, and behavior patterns. At this age risk factors include peers, family, and a community influence that can exponentially increase the chance of delinquency.

A healthy transition from youth to adulthood is based on participation in positive, pro-social environments that are oriented by interest to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. However, troubled youth finds adolescent years detrimental due to instability and risk. A large number of social problems relating to children under the age of 18 are related to poverty that can affect families and communities.

People of color are disproportionately represented in this statistic leading to adverse behaviors and subsequent consequences. Poverty is an inherently environmental condition that supports antisocial conduct, as a result, reducing prospects for healthy development and stability for youth transitioning to adulthood (Jenson & Fraser, 2004). Moonlight seeks to highlight these social and developmental factors which impact the transition of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Each factor, influence, or event in the film plays a specific role in the formation of Chiron’s character and actions. His background and social environment forced him to abandon self-exploration, ambitions, and, perhaps, mortality. By driving his existence into adversity, the inner-city environment left Chiron no prospects but to turn to a life of violence and crime as a survival mechanism.

Familial Support

A substantial sub-plot of Moonlight focuses on Chiron’s relationship with his mother. The relationship is noticeably difficult from the early stages, and in each segment, Chiron voices utmost hate for his mother. There is a hegemonic familial ideology that a nuclear, heterosexual, the patriarchally organized family is the normalcy and necessary for either gender to fulfill socially ascribed roles. The family is seen as the primary place of offering care and support.

Therefore, it is within the interests of everyone for the child to remain within a maintained family unit. However, that is not always the case as troubled youth often describe home environments as intolerable, filled with abuse, including physical and emotional (Bittle, 2013). Throughout the film, Chiron avoids returning home at any possible cost due to the environment of abuse created by his mother. Since childhood, he was the scapegoat of emotional frustrations and was openly demeaned for his uniqueness.

Chiron’s mother became gradually addicted to drugs, to the point of becoming violent and psychotic. It led to the demise of their relationship and family unit. Substance abuse disorder (SUD) negatively impacts emotional and behavioral structures within a family, leading to detrimental consequences for everyone. Children are often faced with impaired attachment, distress, and poor development. Based on attachment theory, if a child sees no adequate response or care from a primary caretaker, an unhealthy relationship forms which leads to a variety of mental health issues and consequences ranging from troubled communication to disruptions in social life.

Due to abuse in parental SUD cases, children are 50% more likely to become juvenile delinquents and commit a violent crime (Lander, Howsare, & Byrne, 2013). A majority of these patterns are evident in Chiron who experiences tremendous emotional distress and has significant issues with trust and communication, even to those who are supportive of him. The high incidence of crime in children of parental SUD is due to the externalization of emotion which leads to violent behavior. Chiron eventually “broke” and began to act aggressively as part of this theoretical behavior pattern.

Depiction of Crime

Although crime plays a secondary role in the plot, it helps to support the underlying theme of environmental influence. From the very first segment, we are shown drug dealing with an extensive network affecting the inner-city neighborhood. Dealers are selling in broad daylight on the same streets that children run through. The interaction between Juan and others in the neighborhood suggests utmost respect for his status as a high-level drug dealer.

Meanwhile, it is evident he lives in a much more affluent area. Respect and masculinity are a critical part of behavior patterns amongst African-American men. In degrading neighborhoods held on illegal economies of drug and crime that co-exist with interpersonal violence, black youth desperately search for respect since it is a highly-valued indicator of authority and manhood. Posing as tough and having street smarts is a critical part of this process (Collins, 2004).

This depiction of criminal activity and even simple interaction amongst males in the community is shown subtly in the film. At an early age, a peer tells Chiron to show others that he is not “soft” to avoid bullying. Later, Juan attempts to reinforce the idea that Chiron must be an individual and not let anyone define or abuse him. The film indicates that when Chiron finally stands up for himself in his adolescent years by attacking the bully, he instantly receives respect and in the next scene as an adult, he is a feared drug dealer.

Social Justice System

Although it is unclear what occurs after Chiron is arrested for the attack, it is implied that he enters up the criminal justice system. His high school friend, who is much less troubled, sees a similar fate. This is a common occurrence in poverty-stricken, inner-city neighborhoods. Youth, especially racial minorities, are treated with suspicion and isolation. Educational institutions implement zero-tolerance policies which create an environment of intolerance and cruel treatment for juvenile offenders without regard for psychological, social, or economic well-being (Giroux, 2003). Standards of morality are no longer established at home or other community institutions.

As a result, the public relies on the criminal justice system as a quick solution to youth crime and supports strict punishment such as putting juveniles on trial as adults. However, youth offending is a symptom of a broader underlying issue of the lack of a crime control system that arises due to a variety of psychosocial influences (Doob & Cesaroni, 2004).

A critical moment in the film that serves as the critical turning point for the plot and catharsis for the character is Chiron’s attack on the bully. However, the events leading up to and following the event should be examined within the context of a broken education and criminal justice system. Chiron is openly instigated and directly threatened several times by the bully in front of the school staff. The consequence for the bully is nothing more than dismissal from class.

The bully is unafraid to stalk Chiron on school property at the end of the school day. Finally, Chiron is violently beaten by the group. A candid conversation occurs between Chiron and the school administrator who encourages him to press charges. However, Chiron evidently breaks down, laughing and crying at the ridiculousness of the idea. He states that it will not change anything.

The state is able to manipulate the juvenile status of delinquents based on its discretion due to the variability of the social category such as adolescence. Trial as an adult suggests that the person can take full responsibility for the consequences of any behavior. Courts commonly use race as a factor to conceptualize aspects such as adolescence, criminality, and sexuality (Raby, 2006). This represents the brokenness the of juvenile justice and education system as implied by the film. Furthermore, the process seeks to “treat” troubled individuals, including queer youth who faces violence and harassment while arrested. Youth is destroyed by the very system which was designed as a method of intervention (Ware, 2011).

By looking at the events building up to Chiron’s attack suggests that the system did little to protect him despite numerous opportunities to do so. The system is focused on apprehending crime only at the desire of the student to press charges, which is unacceptable based on unspoken social rules. Chiron has left no choice but to resort to showcase toughness and violence as a manner of gaining respect.

Combined with emotional distress it resulted in an extremely violent attack that got him arrested. It is known that in the criminal justice system, Chiron encounters a man who introduces him to his drug-dealing network. Therefore, it can be implied that Chiron may have been put on trial and jailed as an adult. Although the transition occurs off-screen and is mainly subtle, it emphasizes how the failure of the system led to Chiron’s involvement in a life of crime.


Moonlight shows the transition of a gay African-American young man to adulthood in an inner-city community. It highlights the vicious cycle of crime that apprehends racial and sexual minorities due to forced violence, discrimination, and lack of adequate social support structures. The award-winning motion picture was able to capture the candid reality faced by youth growing up in environments without prospects and a struggle to survive if one was different from social norms. Such conditions perpetuate delinquency amongst youth that the criminal justice system transitions into crime.


Bittle, S. (2013). Still punishing to ‘protect’: Youth prostitution law and policy reform. In E. van der Meulen, E. Durisin & V. Love (Eds.), Selling sex: Canadian academics, sex workers and advocates in dialogue (pp. 279-296). Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.

Collins, P. H. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Doob, A. N., & Cesaroni, C. (2004). Responding to youth crime in Canada. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Giroux, H. (2003). Racial injustice and disposable youth in the age of zero tolerance. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(4), 553-565. Web.

Jenson, J. M., & Fraser, M. W. (2004). Risk and resilience: Framework for the child, youth, and family policy. In M. W. Fraser (Ed.), Risk and resilience in childhood: An ecological perspective (2nd ed.) (pp. 1-18). Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: From theory to practice. Social Work in Public Health, 28(0), 194–205. Web.

Raby, R. (2006). Children in sex, adults in crime: Constructing and confining teens. Resources for Feminist Research, 31(3/4), 9-28.

Romanski, A., Gardner, D., & Kleiner, J. (Producers), & Jenkins, B. (Director). (2016). Moonlight [Motion picture]. United States: A24.

Ware, W. (2011). Rounding up the homosexuals: The impact of juvenile court on queer and trans/gender-non-conforming youth. In. E. A. Stanley & N. Smith (Eds.), Captive genders: Trans Embodiment and the prison industrial complex (pp. 77-84). Oakland, CA: AK Press.

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