Something extraordinary happened at the Oscar’s this year and many will not even realize its importance. I am talking about the quiet validation of alternative Black, male masculinity portrayed, with endearing complexity, in the big winner of the night for best film, Moonlight.
When you look at the IMDb description for the film “Moonlight” it reads as follows: “A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.” The film is really about how Chiron, an introspective and sensitive black boy, must negotiate the sometimes unyielding and hard inner city streets.
Chiron faces an early traumatic moment of betrayal due to him letting his guard down with regard to his true nature. Chiron then decides as he gets older that his only way to survive is to become a chameleon and take on the signifiers of black hyper-masculinity. He gets buff, built, hard and “thuggish.” He sports muscles, a durag, sagging jeans and even gold fronts.
But interesting enough, some have reduced this film to a simple gay narrative, which is not too welcomed, especially on some black social media threads.
I get it. Black masculinity is under constant threat. Black men are consistently monitoring themselves as to not be too threatening, too loud, too aggressive, too ethnic, too urban or just too black. But the ultimate slight to the almost hyper-masculine image of the black man would be any hint of softness or “feminine” qualities. Because such a chink in the armor would mean that brother is not a “real man.”
This calls into question the image of black masculinity and underscores how important the film “Moonlight” is in that evolutionary process. I, like some of you, have observed how resistant some folks have been to this film. Good church folks have been resistant to the “homosexual” narrative of the film, while others feel it is a continuation of the mainstream trend to feminize the black man. But to reduce “Moonlight” to such basic derivatives does not do the film justice.
Yes, on the surface, Moonlight can be described as a black gay man’s coming of age story but to me it is so much more. Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Juan, a reluctant drug dealer who befriends and acts as a surrogate father figure to the main character Chiron. It is made clear almost from the first scene, where other boys circle, hunt and herd a terrified Chiron like a weak gazelle identified for slaughter by a hungry pride of lions. Chiron knows that his innate sensitivity makes him an easy target and thus the endearing drama of how this young man must reconcile being true to his nature with what is acceptable in regards to black masculinity is what makes the film so compelling.
Ali’s character shows us an alternative to “making a boy” hard or beating the softness out of him. Ali’s character Juan instead chooses to nurture Chiron’s gentle nature and support him in his quest to question and evolve into the type of black man he wants to be but sadly even under such a supportive environment Chiron still feels pressured to change.
As someone who grew up with similar challenges as Chiron being a young, sensitive boy in the inner city, I know first-hand the pressure of trying to be the perfect “black man.” I have authored a book series, “Misadventures of an Urban Nerd” that explores a similar narrative of a black boy determined to define himself on his own terms and not others expectations of what is acceptable.
The reason the film Moonlight is so significant is that it allows us an opportunity to deconstruct the black Superman persona. Moonlight gives us a rare opportunity to celebrate an evolving narrative of the black man who finds strength not so much with force and stature but through his ability to show love and compassion, even to those deemed as weaker and vulnerable.