Watching Moonlight in the Twilight of Obama

Co-authored with: Menaka Kannan (MAT, Data Analyst, New Visions for Public Schools) and Rhys Hall (BA, Sociology Graduate Student, University of Connecticut)

[* * * Spoiler Alert * * *]

Now a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and only days before the 2017 Oscars, what are the meanings of Moonlight?

One thing seems apparent: a movie like this could not have been made (or at least would be unlikely to receive critical praise), if not for the last eight years. Reading Moonlight in the twilight of the Obama era is an experience marked by the contradictory mélange of deep allegiances: of the proliferation of conventional black respectability politics that eschew the supposed cultural and moral dysfunctions of the racial underclass; the hypocritical fetish among the progressive left that backed the blackface of white geopolitical military empire, and; Obama’s image as “the first gay president” on the cover of Newsweek, despite his selective support and marginalization of varied LGBT rights. The latter point was highlighted in a June 2011 report by The Guardian:

President Obama will headline the annual LGBT Leadership Council Gala in New York City, timed to coincide with Gay Pride …. It's also central to convincing the press and public that the LGBT community loves Obama, and he has our vote sewn up. But the fact is, LGBT support isn't in the bag. This event is merely the latest chapter in a months-long PR juggernaut that has included the launch of an LGBT web page over at the White House, plus a zillion press releases, proclamations and articles intended to demonstrate the administration's support for LGBT people – despite its track record.

There is much to critique and much work to be done in the wake of the Obama presidency in the realms of sexual politics, gender identity performances, rainbowed representational media regimes, and the very basics of LGBTQ civil and human rights. Yet, Moonlight’s emergence and warm reception (grossing over $20 million at the box office as of mid-February of this year) two years after Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), certainly demonstrates the amazing strides made, both at the behest of grassroots efforts and activism as well as the prior White House administration’s posturing and leadership.­

Much has been written about Moonlight since its 21 October 2016 debut, a moment just two days after the third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. From Oscar buzz to winning the Golden Globe for best drama, most critics deem the film a reflection of a deep social complexity. In the New York Times A. O. Scott writes:

‘”Moonlight’ is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.”

In The Atlantic David Sims gushes:

“From start to finish, the director Barry Jenkins’s new film balances the scope of its ambitions: The story weaves random memories and crucial life experiences into a tapestry, one that tries to unlock the shielded heart of its protagonist. In short, Moonlight demands to be seen, even though the film is about a man who desperately wants to keep the audience at arm’s length.”

And Ann Hornaday opines in the Washington Post that:

“… viewers …. can finally see a perfect film, one that exemplifies not only the formal and aesthetic capabilities of a medium at its most visually rich, but a capacity for empathy and compassion that reminds audiences of one of the chief reasons why we go to movies: to be moved, opened up and maybe permanently changed. Adding to its achievement, “Moonlight” accomplishes all of this without a trace of bombast or showy self-congratulation.”

Yet, how do we now read Moonlight in the dawn of the reality show that is the Trump administration? The complexity and polysemy of the film’s themes, read alongside the troubling tenacity of Trump’s tack—from his support for an odious anti-LGBTQ law in the form of North Carolina’s HB2, to his statement that he would “strongly consider” appointing a Supreme Court judge to overturn the legality of same-sex marriage, to his selection of VP Mike Pence who signed a bill into law that allows businesses to discriminate and deny service to LGBTQ people—both reproduce and challenge the continuing fight for LGBTQ, racial, class, and gender equality and representational struggles of marginalized peoples on the silver screen

First, while many have praised the film for its progressive treatment of race, sexuality, and class, Moonlight trades on many of the tried and true narratives of the supposed natural and cultural dysfunction of the African American “experience”—what Hilton Als in The New Yorker calls “Negro hyperbole.” Moonlight certainly can be an exercise in confirmation bias. Some of these narratives are found in the context of housing projects in Miami and illicit drug use and trade, the hanging of violence on the bodies of immature black boys, and the conspicuous consumption of chains, rims, and fronts. These familiar images run the risk of conjuring in some a rehearsal of the “alternative facts” many of them already believe to be true (in particular, 9 out of 10 suburban whites who, in our hyper-segregated world, live in communities in which the black population is less than 1 percent): that blackness (especially black masculinity) is little more than a one-dimensional dysfunction, lurking in the shadows and waiting to unleash itself upon the purity and morality of whiteness. And these very stereotypes didn’t emerge on 4 November 2016; rather, they made possible the outcome of that day. They are what Obama himself both shunned and traded. Consider Obama’s June 2008 address to a black church in Chicago:

“Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes .… They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

This is the Obama popular across the color-line. This Obama reads like words ripped from a mundane 1965 government report by Senator and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which itself became a tinderbox of controversy. It read, in part:

“Nonetheless, at the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure. Once or twice removed, it will be found to be the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation.”

Yet, Moonlight is no Moynihan, 2.0. It is a tour de force in contradictions, as the diversity of the all-black cast makes clear. Moonlight also revels in the complexity and multiplicity of black masculinities. Beginning in the 1980’s era of Reaganomics and the height of the “War on Drugs” waged against black and brown folks, the film opens with “Juan” (Mahershala Ali): We see a cigarette smoking, wave-cap sporting, drug dealing captain of the block surveying his kingdom from the throne of his classic Chevrolet, which sits on 22-inch chrome rims, and whose dashboard sports a shiny golden crown.

Despite the genesis of this framing, Juan is no cutout. He shortly reveals he is not African American, but a Cuban who embraces his Afro-Latin identity. In his Act 1 seashore soliloquy to the film’s protagonist, whom we come to know as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), he instructs Little to recognize the diversity and proliferation of blackness the world over:

“Let me tell you something, man. There are black people everywhere. Remember that, OK? No place you can go in the world ain’t got no black people. We was the first on this planet. I been here a long time. I'm from Cuba. Lot of black folks in Cuba but you wouldn't know that from being here, though.”

Moonlight openly and unabashedly embraces its diverse array of blacknesses. Like any film in the modern day featuring an all-black cast, the absence of white characters makes a meta point: this is a “Black Film” [cue scary music]. Consider that of the top 100 films of 2014, nearly 75% of all characters were white and only 17 of the top movies that year featured non-white lead or co-lead actors (and these films are simply “films” and are often not considered “White Films”... at least not by most white folks).

The contradictions continue in the film’s treatment of racism and heteronormativity. In the first instance, the all-black characters live in the shadow of a white supremacy that is systemic rather than individually prejudicial. The film is devoid of white racists in pointy hoods (or blue uniforms) to force their will upon a sea of black victims. Rather, Moonlight is effective in its portrayal of how the weighty legacy of centuries of intentional white supremacy, how the treatment of black communities with “benign neglect” (from a 1969 policy from, again, Daniel Patrick Moynihan), and how the racial re-segregation and government roll-back of Civil Rights legislation in the 1980s, all created anything but an equal playing field upon which Little could roughhouse or Juan could sling dope.

In terms of both heteronormativity and homophobic representations, Moonlight shines. Homophobia is located in the personages of “Terrel” (Patrick Decile) and Chrion’s mother “Paula” (Naomie Harris), who in their physical and verbal terrorism of Chiron, emerge as the conventional bigots we come to expect, yet they also serve as catalysts in a larger systemic reaction. Chiron’s anti-gay tormentors harass and beat him throughout his childhood and adolescence, but their actions are treated as mere schoolboy rough-housing. In contrast, Chiron is arrested for his one act of defensive retaliation against anti-gay bullying—an act that begins his descent into prison. The overlooked violence against Chiron and the quick response to his own violence is a window into the systemic bias of an oppressive system that seems to catch up with each prominent (black) male character in the film (whether Chiron, Kevin, or Juan). Kevin reminds us of how endemic the injustice is with the cool and easy cadence of his voice when he recounts his own arrest to Chiron as an adult: “Yeah buddy, man, I got sent up for some stupid shit, the same stupid shit we always get sent up for.” The unchanging backdrop against which the intricate male characters of Moonlight operate binds their hands, even as they experience an existential transformation over the course of the three acts. Hence, Moonlight, while ostensibly a love story and a tale of self-actualization, is in part a film about “racism without racists”, about heteronormativity without homophobes, about oppression without oppressors.

“Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you, I promise you. I’m not going to let you go. Hey man, I got you. There you g
“Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you, I promise you. I’m not going to let you go. Hey man, I got you. There you go. Ten seconds. That right there, you in the middle of the world. That’s good …. I think you ready.”

Within these complex masculine representations, Juan quickly emerges as father figure and a tortured savior to young Little. The aforementioned seaside chat with Little transitions into a not-so-subtle Baptism in the ocean, whereby Juan both saves Little from his fears of the water and begins to guide him toward understanding and accepting his own sexuality. Juan encourages Little to make positive meaning of his own identity when he later responds to Little’s query as to what a “faggot” is and whether he is one. The touching scene, which refrains from either pity or preaching, provides Little with a scaffolding upon which he can build his identity and self-acceptance. Yet, Juan is clear that this construction is fraught with danger and will require fortitude on Little’s part:

Little: “What's a faggot?” Juan: “A faggot is, uh, a word used to make gay people feel bad. Little: “Am I a faggot?” Juan: “No, no. You can be gay, but you don't got to let nobody call you no faggot.” Little: “How do I know?” Juan: “You just do, I think …. Hey, you don’t got to know right now, alright? Not yet.”

Unlike many coming of age tales, the developing manliness of the central character of “Little” (Alex Hibbert) to “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders) to “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) is never sacrificed for the embrace of violence or misogyny that holds the past and future together. Rather, the common denominator across Chiron’s boy-to-man evolution is the three actors’ ability to carry forward the look of adolescent anxiety and trepidation, even as the character’s third act self grows into a muscle-bound man decorated with tattoos and gold. The protagonist, and his masculinity, is flawed, sloppy, and deeply human. Juxtaposed against his best friend qua lover “Kevin” (Jaden Piner), the two hold varied experiences as both the perpetrators and victims of violence at the hands of abusive parents, homophobic “peer pressure,” the banality of high school bullying, and the temptations to exemplify the viciousness of “cool pose” straight-masculinity. And their sweet love scene, which includes slow and long drawn shots, showcases kind-hearted affection in the form of the caress of one’s face, the gentle holding of one’s hand, and the delicate assertion of a first kiss, is set alongside the metaphoric passion and eroticism of Chiron’s dark hands digging into the light sand of the beach—illuminated by moonlight. In choosing to depict the sole love scene of the movie through popular, almost cliché romantic devices, Moonlight boldly asserts that two teenage boys’ sexual experience is beautiful, poetic, and universal. Amidst the media dearth of pure and tender male-on-male love, Moonlight refuses to fall into the abyss.

While mottled masculinities are be-speckled throughout the film, and the all-black cast prevents the messianic moments of Juan’s mentorship from failing the “Hughey Test” of a White Savior Film, the film fails miserably at the “Bechdel Test” in which at least two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a male character. In fact, the two main women characters if the film, Juan’s paramour “Teresa” (Janelle Monáe) and Chiron’s mother “Paula” (Naomie Harris) are bookends of popular stereotypes. On the one hand, Paula is a welfare-supported, drug addict prop who serves as little more than a plot device for Chiron’s boyhood and sexual anxieties as well as his tenuous socio-economic position. Teresa, on the other hand, is the Madonna figure who dotes upon Chiron and provides a respite in the storm. Neither are complex nor active agents of their destiny. They have no arc. Rather, the film seems to construct gender as a zero-sum relation whereby female agency and nuance is sacrificed on the altar of diverse representations of masculinity.

The three-act sequence of the film—marked by the transition of the protagonist from “Little” to “Chiron” to “Black”—gestures toward the prescient question: What’s in a name? This point is driven home by three scenes near the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the film.

In the beginning, Juan sits with Little on the beach in the shade of a Miami palm tree. Recounting his time in Cuba as a boy, Juan tells of how he was once known by the name of “Blue”:

“This one time, I ran by this old, old lady, was just a runnin' and a hollerin' and cuttin' a fool, boy. And this old lady, she stop me and she say to me, ‘Look at you. I was a lil’ bad ass too, you know. She say, ‘Look at you’ and I say ‘Look at you!’ Then she smiled and she say, ‘Running around catching up all this light. In moonlight’ she say, ‘black boys look blue. You blue,’ she say. ‘That’s what I’m gonna call you: Blue’.”

Near the middle of the film, Kevin walks up to Chiron as he sits on the beach. Placing himself beside Chiron, Kevin states, “Oh what, you smoke out here too?”, to which Chiron sheepishly replies, “Something like that.” Kevin retorts:

“Nah, you don’t smoke. Why you pretending? You trying to put on a show for me Black?” Chiron: “Why you always calling me that?” Kevin: “What, ‘Black’?” Chiron: “Yeah, ‘Black’.” Kevin: “That’s my nickname for you. You don’t like it?” Chiron: “Naw, it’s just, what kinda dude goes around giving other dudes nicknames?”

And at the conclusion of the film, in the reunion between Kevin and Black, they discuss the transformation from “Little” (Alex Hibbert) to “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders) to “Black” (Trevante Rhodes):

Kevin: “Who is you, man?” Black: “Who, me?” Kevin: “Yeah, nigga. You. Them fronts? That car? Who is you, Chiron?” Black: “I’m me, man, ain’t tryna be nothin’ else.” ….Kevin: “So you hard now?” Black: “I ain’t say that.” Kevin: “Then what? Look, I’m not tryin to hem you up. Just, I ain’t seen you in a minute. Not what I expected, none of it. Not good or bad, just not what I expected.” Black: “Well what did you expect? …. When we got to Atlanta, I started over. Built myself from the ground up. Built myself hard.”

Together, these three scenes structure the arc of the protagonist’s transformation, and in so doing make points both melancholy and melodic. The protagonist’s constant renaming symbolizes this struggle for self-efficacy and agency, as he is repeatedly known by names not of his choice or, at the least, entire comfort. In the first act, as “Little,” the young boy struggles to understand his burgeoning sexuality and transition to adolescence. In his first dialogue, he sheepishly squeaks out the sentence, “My name is Chiron, people call me Little,” to which Teresa (his Madonnaesque mother) responds that she will call him Chiron. Together with Juan (as father figure turned baptismal savior), they encourage him to labor upon a road to self-discovery and acceptance: “At some point,” Juan tells Little, “You gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” Yet, Little has a long way to go. In the second act, the awkward and lanky figure of “Chiron” continues down this path even as he stumbles and back-steps. In his exchange with Kevin about his nickname of “Black,” Chiron appears cramped and confined by the name, while simultaneously relishing and basking in the sign of Kevin’s love and attention. This scene exposes Chiron’s continued need to be named and directed by another, even as we come to see Kevin’s existence as the device for Chiron’s eventual self-actualization. Hence, in the third act, it is immediately apparent that Chiron now wears the costume of Juan. From his car and physical stature to his jewelry and profession, “Black” is the new “Blue.” And it is from under this mask that Black finally fully sees, and is able to step out of, his own shadow. But throughout most of the third act, Black is still trapped in the avatar of Juan. His license plate reads “BLACK305” (an homage to his Miami-Dade County roots via area code). He has embraced “trapping” (a euphemism for drug dealing) and all the accoutrements of that dark side life (from his Juan-inspired car and jewelry to his soundtrack, the bass pounding “Classic Man” from Jidenna’s hit 2015 album). And finally, Black performs a stoic, iron-faced, clench-jawed heterosexual masculinity, listening and consenting to his lieutenant’s talk of sexual exploits over women. It is only after Black received a surprise phone call from Kevin (the first person to call him “Black”), that he pens the final chapter of his narrative of acceptance. Driving all night from Atlanta to Miami to see his first love, he finally become Chiron after answering Kevin’s query: “Who is you, Chiron?” In this vein, the metaphor of moonlight and colors becomes apparent. The hiding of his sexuality in the closet of moonlight, has turned Black (Chiron), blue (sad). It is only under the bright lights, confronting Kevin face to face on his own terms, that this now “Classic Man” decides who he is by asserting his love and comfort not only for Kevin, but for his own self.

Now in the beginning of the era of Trump, a period distinct from the previous administration—and one already rife with executive orders, administrative appointments, and threats to curtail certain protections for those marginalized by nationality, religion, or sexual orientation—Moonlight is striking in its unadulterated portrayal of the enduring power of love (Note that we emphasize “love”—not sex, and not even romance). The three distinct acts work in concert to portray love stories between Chiron and his parent figures and between Chiron and Kevin, which evolve, adapt, and endure the tests of time and social injustice.

In the first act, Little is rescued by Juan and Teresa, the former acting as the father he never had, and the latter as the mother he always wished he had. Comfortably nestled in the warm and safe home that Juan and Teresa provide, Little confides his hatred for his mother and drinks in his surrogate parents’ unconditional love. Little’s black-and-white view of love and hatred morphs into Chiron’s adolescent confusion. Chiron is conflicted between defending his mother Paula against the verbal onslaught of bullies, then almost immediately defending his mother-figure Teresa against Paula’s own manipulations for money. He struggles with how to make meaning of parental love, particularly in the stark loss of his father figure. As an adult, Black honors his love for his deceased “father” by dawning Juan’s robe. We also see him take calls from Paula in an age-old dance of love and annoyance between children and their mothers, with hardly a trace of his childhood trauma. Chiron’s maturing vision of love for his “parents” fuels his journey toward self-determination. In the final moments of the film, in which he stands tall and ready to embrace his sexuality, we see his adoration for Juan, his safety in Teresa’s embrace, and even his anger turned to acceptance over his mother’s drug addiction and verbal abuse.

In telling a different kind of love story, the three acts together show Little and Kevin’s young “brotherly love” transform into Chiron and Kevin’s teenage exploration into romance, and again into Black and Kevin’s fulfillment of a story which has percolated for most of their lives. The first act sets the stage for Little’s and Kevin’s (Jaden Piner) life trajectories, which will grow close, deviate, and eventually intersect once more. Kevin lovingly tests and advises Little on how to protect and respect himself from the school bullies and games that physically overwhelm him and mentally intimidate him. “I ain’t soft,” he tells his Kevin after one such game. Kevin then wrestles Little in what Sarah Beauchamp at Culture Sonar calls “a kind of play-fight that feels like both a ritual and an acceptance.” After the ceremonial contest, Kevin rises above Little to say, “See, I knew you wasn't soft.”

The second act turns their wrestling match into a dance of friendship, flirting, and fronting a womanizing and misogynistic masculine identity. The third act seems to rupture the fabric laid out by the first two, with Chiron’s glaring physical metamorphosis into Black. In what could be described as a gay black Bridget Jones film, the diner scenes reverse the power dynamic of the film up to this point. Kevin flirts with Black, cooks for him, and constantly pours out both wine and compliments, doling out the affection as Black sits there, soaking up the attention he has craved. However, the story reclaims its tensile strength in Black’ final character development when he ultimately loves himself enough to be himself. Black is free to both love and be loved. In his own ardor, he gives himself consent to be vulnerable with the only man he has ever loved: Kevin. Black bluntly tells him, “You’re the only man who’s ever touched me. The only one. I haven’t really touched anyone, since.” In this moment, Black becomes the agent of his own masculinity and sexuality: he is no longer seeking parental approval for his sexuality; no longer seeking Kevin’s permission to want him; he claims his love and declares it unequivocally.

Now in the wake of the first black (and “the first gay”) president, and on the heels of an administration that was already deeply unpopular even before the first day of office, what does Moonlight mean? In short, it is an epic; a sweeping homage to both the transformations in society (both positive and regressive) and to the nobility and negativity of the human condition. And perhaps above all, Moonlight is neither about “hope” nor “change.” Rather, it reminds us: si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). The representational, political, and social gains of marginalized people over recent years is not promised. The struggles of Little-Chiron-Black are not abstract, but will be replayed by many in the widening chasm of wealth inequality, imprisonment for profit, the fetishization of sexual diversity over sexual justice, and the building of boundaries and walls that liberate the flow of capital, even as they capture the bodies that capital should serve. History is not linear; it cuts peaks and valleys alike. How our real-to-reel life relations shall be, are scenes not yet shot, even as the power elite attempt to write our lines for us.

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