“Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ second directorial effort, is quickly becoming regarded as one of the year’s best films. Its praise is well deserved: It is a beautifully-shot, beautifully-acted and beautifully-written character study, following the life of a gay black man named Chiron from childhood to adulthood in three brilliant acts.
Images of black pain, poverty, and violence have always been more palpable and more appealing to white Hollywood gatekeepers, who fall over themselves to laud familiar narratives of black disenfranchisement in answer to the industry’s persistent diversity problem. Think “Precious,” or “Monster,” or any slave movie in the last twenty years. All brilliant and necessary, but those movies all tell familiar narratives. On the surface, “Moonlight” ticks all the boxes with its story of an impoverished young black boy struggling with an abusive, drug-addicted mother, merciless harassment at school, and a relationship with a drug-dealing father-figure.
But the movie is so much more than a collection of beautifully-packaged tropes. It doesn’t cater to perspectives that seek to merely fetishize black pain. It doesn’t exploit or sensationalize the very real inner turmoil that many queer men of color go through. It subverts stereotypes of black masculinity while also acknowledging that these stereotypes exist, and it explores the spiritual damage that these stereotypes create. It is, in other words, a holistic and human portrait of a black man as an individual, and not an idea, a gimmick, or a lesson.
There’s a scene in “Moonlight” where Chiron, a little boy, spends a day at the beach with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug-dealer who has taken him under his wing. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gon’ be,” Juan tells the young Chiron, “Don’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
It’s a kind of universal advice, but it’s advice that takes on a different tone and tenor for black boys. Black boys, who even in childhood are looked at as men. Black boys, whose very existence has been weaponized against them. Black boys, who, no matter who they actually “decide” to be, usually have their identities decided by society before they even have a chance to fully grow into themselves.
This is illustrated beautifully in the second act of the film, titled “Chiron,” where the protagonist, now an introverted high-schooler besieged by bullies for being too “feminine,” shares a joint with a friend, Kevin, on a beach at night. There, he has his first real sexual experience with Kevin, a moment of truth and intimacy that helps him step more fully into who he is. But the next day, before he can truly relish this new awakening, Chiron’s most brutal tormenter forces Kevin to beat him and humiliate him in front of the entire school. This moment forms the catalyst for an entirely new, different Chiron, a Chiron unable to navigate the world without armor and self denial.
It’s so significant and so important that a film tackling the question of black male identity and black masculinity focuses on a gay man. That focus has been a long time coming. As writer Michael Arceneaux points out in his stellar Complex piece on “Moonlight,” so many straight black men view their gay counterparts as “less than men because we are men attracted to other men.”
Arceneaux adds: “Men of all races have contend with the misogyny that births homophobia, but black men have to contend with a rigid idea of masculinity. These men think they are protecting black manhood when in reality, they’re merely serving as cheerleaders and puppets of gender rules derived from white patriarchy.”
“"It’s so important that a film tackling the question of black male identity and black masculinity focuses on a gay man."”
Masculinity is such a fragile thing. Black masculinity is especially fraught. Black men have been subjected to a history of violence, denigration, and emasculation over centuries, and the aftermath has been a sea of souls unable to reckon with an unnamed pain.
But there’s beauty in vulnerability, and some of the most beautiful moments in “Moonlight” are the moments when Chiron removes his armor, takes off the mask. This is why every black man, straight or queer, needs to see this film. In its own small way, it reckons with the narratives that have been thrust upon black men, the narratives they’ve had to buy into, paramount among these that being gay means being weak, and thus not a man at all.
There’s a song called “Scales” on Solange’s album “A Seat At The Table” that feels almost like an auditory echo of Barry Jenkins’ new film, “Moonlight.” Singing about a young black man hustling, Solange croons:
“You’re a superstar
You’re a superstar
Always shining in the night
And your skin glowing in the moonlight.”
In the interlude before the song, Master P explains where his famous “make ‘em say unnh” phrase came from.
“Cause I never cried or nothing... that’s like my pain. That’s my battle cry.”
“Moonlight” is its own battle cry, or perhaps more appropriately, it's a rallying cry for men who’ve never cried, who’ve had to put on physical and spiritual armor in order to navigate the world each day. It challenges our notions of what it means to be a man, especially a black gay man.
So much about gender is performance, performance as affirmation and performance as survival. To see that performance in “Moonlight”, deconstructed, is profound and healing. It’s something every black man should see.