I first saw Barry Jenkins' film Moonlight at a pre-release screening and panel at University of Alabama, hosted by friend, colleague, and fellow poet L. Lamar Wilson. I understood it loosely to be a coming of age story of a black boy in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, yet nothing could have prepared me for the aching reality that, for the first time on the big screen, I'd see parts of myself, critically shaped by society's suffocating and restrictive hypermasculinity. Jenkins' forces the audience to sit with very uncomfortable silences which, intended or not, amplify and echo the black community's silence around the ways that rigid notions of masculinity impact us all. Moonlight wisely pivots around the experience of Little who becomes Chiron, and then Black in three Chapters of a life rooted in playwright Terrell McCraney's In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue. I left the theater heavy; for the realization that such narratives have been relatively absent in black mainstream cinema, but also for what the movie revealed about the lack of capacity, compassion, or competency to create safe and brave spaces for the film's central figure. Moonlight, more than a gripping story of a black boy's journey through the maze of black masculinity, for educators, should be a call to action.
I reflected on my own suicidal ideation for lack of support at home or in my schools, nearly 25 years ago; saddened that it is still the reality for black boys who come to awareness that they are different, funny, soft, or deemed a fag**t. Jenkins' film invite a toolkit to help educators stand by their missions to provide all youth a quality education. While efforts like President Obama's White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans, bravely led by David Johns, will likely become a thing of the past under the Trump administration, there have been countless forums dedicated to black male excellence that have never once broached the topic of same gender loving boys. I've attended countless forums, tummy tightened for the invisibility of black boys I've nurtured spaces for in the absence of institutional support for more than two decades.
Hostile is the environment where a school principal can suggest elementary students can't possibly know their affectional orientation, or even in high school settings where many administrations don't even know what LGBTQ even stands for. This ignorance leaves schools shamefully unprepared to provide the conditions to support the Little and Chirons in our communities. We cannot support what cannot exist in our minds because of our own moralizing silence. Too few of our black boys get to be the exceptional, overperforming queer boys like me and many peers. How much more might I have achieved if some of my energy surviving trauma was freer to become a STEM genius, a young researcher, or the literary figure I was able to become only after leaving Taylor, Arkansas for Duke.
There are a few moments in the film I believe are worth talking about. I offer questions, not because the brilliance of Moonlight is the questions you are left with:
1. Parent Engagement: Educators quite often reference the direct correlation between parent engagement and student achievement. But what about students whose parents, like Chiron's, lack capacity to engage because of drug or alcohol addiction? Where is our capacity to register that there might be people in a child's life who supplement the care needed; and do we even have tools or ask the right questions to engage Juan or Theresa, Little's chosen family? Would our caricature of drug dealing black men, prevent the viability of black men having an awakening through strategic mentorship to young men in our communities? Something about Juan changes or perhaps "opens up" when he welcomes Little into his life; and though we are left in the film to wonder about his disappearance, the change may well have been the death of him. Perhaps the "baptism" Juan initiates for Little marked a new beginning and hope for them both.
2. Recreation and Play: We shift from Little's awkward reticence to engage sports, if a seeming willingness to try, amid boys who both invite his participation and taunt it. It isn't until Little walks away from this band of black boys and is approached by Kevin, that he is able to contend that he "ain't soft" and engage the kind of play that is affirming. Few recreational spaces, from recess at schools to Boys and Girls Clubs, provide these kinds of spaces for boys like Little. Juxtapose this scene with one of the few moments when we see Little happy. He's in a dance studio doing "kid and play" with another boy and breaks into a spin, head thrown back in carefree bliss, uninhibited by norms that restrict certain kinds of agility among boys or that would deem as "effeminiate" rather than "free." What opportunities do we have to re-examine spaces of recreation and play in our schools to create the kinds of environments that are safe and affirming for all children? In what ways do our schools deepen rigid and binary gender norms that are traumatizing to kids who don't perform gender as normatively prescribed?
3. Safe Classrooms: The teenage Chiron's science classroom, where a black man leads as teacher, is not a space where he can learn. Homophobic taunting of Chiron is tolerated until physical threats are made. His bully Terrell is expelled from the classroom yet no discussion follows about why this behavior was wrong. What learning opportunities do such situations present to shape a classroom culture of respect that is conducive to learning? What restorative justice opportunities do educators have to explain to Terrell why his bullying is problematic; and what resources are available to get to the heart of why he bullies? I was more of a bully than bullied in school; a way to deflect, very early on, any suspicion about my own sexuality. It was an acting out in response to the black hole that denies queer black boys full self-realization. Options are few: bully or be bullied. Kevin's call to beat Chiron is the metonymic challenge to commit to hypermasculinity at the expense of a boy he loves... or become the victim of violence. Relevant is Moonlight's recognition that bullying, while universal to a degree, is something disproportionately experienced by LGBTQ students.
4. School to Prison Pipeline: Finally, there is the insult to injury by the school administrator after Chiron is beaten that "if [he] were a real man there would be four other knuckleheads [there] with [him]" triggers Chiron's retaliatory move for survival. It is the administrator's suggestion she "understands," that amplifies how little she does. Would she have even imagined the conflict of Chiron "turning in" his first love? Queer black love in the school context remains an impossibility. Jenkins' visually blurs the administrator and her words. It is in the healing water and ice that Chiron is reborn as "Black," the name given to him by a love forced to betray--a betrayal that enables a virile, tough exterior that triggers his bash-back against the bully. This retaliatory defense lands Chiron in jail where he would further sharpen the contours of protective masculinity in a way that resembled the only father figure he'd known, Juan. Such moments in Moonlight highlight why LGBTQ students are often over-impacted by zero tolerance disciplinary policies that dismiss the impact of having been bullied over time, which can also lead to higher rates of LGBTQ students arming themselves for their own protection, as well as involvement in fights that are, ultimately, the result of permissive homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. What self-work to black educators have to do not to use religious exemptions as an "out" from providing a safe environment for all students?
Moonlight calls educators to do something different in schools. Particularly, school leaders serving black youth need to think seriously about atonement as action: to think about the ways our silence around LGBTQ students in our schools has negatively impacted our ability to provide all students a quality education. It's been said many times that people leave Moonlight compelled to think differently about their humanity. As educators, I believe the film also serves as an invitation for educators to think about schooling differently: admitting our oversights, challenging our shaming and moralizing, and actively creating structures to ensure the Little's and Chiron's in our schools feel safe, affirmed, and prepared to thrive in a world that will present enough barriers to achievement and success.