“There are many reasons for Black gay [male] invisibility,” wrote the late, legendary author and activist Joseph Beam in the introduction to the 1986 Black gay male literature anthology, In the Life. “Hard words come to mind: power, racism, conspiracy, oppression, and privilege—each deserving of a full-fledged discussion in gay history books yet unwritten.”
In the 30 years that have followed, this remains a sorely underserved subject, at least in the mainstream, for the precise reasons Beam outlined. Yet, there may be reason to believe that’s about to change with the release of a remarkable new film, Moonlight.
Adapted from a work by MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), Moonlight is a story that follows its main character, Chiron, as he navigates his way through the complexities that come with growing up queer in a Miami enclave that is rough, at least on the surface.
The film is broken up into three segments, each focusing on a particular period in Chiron’s life during his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The casting here is superb as each of the actors playing Chiron—Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively—do so with great subtlety and sensitivity. Chiron, called “Little” as a child, is being raised alone by his mother (played with frightening effect by Naomie Harris), a woman dealing with her own demons and torn between her love for him and her fear of what he is. The only places Chiron can find reprieve is with his closest friend, Kevin (also played by three actors, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland, all deft in their roles), and, more surprisingly, with the local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), both of whom give transcendent performances.
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It isn’t exactly fair to categorize Chiron as “gay.” He never identifies himself as such and many of the other characters only refer to his perceived sexuality through silence or the use of homophobic slurs. Perhaps it’s for the best that no precise declaration is made as some queer identities can be as constricting and confining as straight ones. But what is clear is that Chiron’s heart and attractions bend toward other men, even before he has the words, however demeaning, to articulate it.
And that’s important because most heterosexuals believe that queerness is an affectation; that is, a state of being brought on after a traumatic sexual experience rather than a natural human orientation. Generally speaking, heterosexuals think that everyone is heterosexual until such time that they are “corrupted” by circumstances around them. This is a provably false narrative designed solely to degrade queer experiences and disguise heterosexuality’s compulsory aspect. With this falsehood, they deny the existence of queer children in an attempt to remove the plain truth that queerness is as naturally occurring as straightness.
So witnessing Chiron grow into himself is a necessary rebuke—and a complicated one. For in his journey, he finds both thrill and heartbreak. While both of these are astonishing on screen, it’s the latter—which comes as a serious gut punch—that damages him enough for him to succumb to the world’s demand to be remade in its limited, unimaginative image of masculinity. Here, quite brilliantly, the audience is implicated, too, and becomes the unwitting antagonist in the story as the gender policing stripped naked in the film is the great pastime of which all Americans partake.
Sublime, difficult, and surprisingly healing, Jenkins and McCraney do a phenomenal job in telling a tale in which every character is given the dimension Black characters often lack in less loyal, less knowledgeable hands. Rather than pathologize Black communities, Moonlight presents a more nuanced reality where a drug addict can find reconciliation, a drug dealer can be benevolent, and a queer man can find love amidst the hostility. Under cinematographer James Laxton’s auspices, even the harried landscapes have their own shimmer and glow, so that the film’s title makes perfect sense. And unlike most films that attempt to cover similar ground, the creators here didn’t feel compelled to whitewash scenarios, by adding white saviors or love interests to appeal to a peculiar segment of the movie-going audience that might not be interested otherwise. If Black men loving Black men is, indeed, a revolutionary act, as the aforementioned Beam once noted, then here, in this film, lies the opening salvo of that revolution.
What Moonlight does, ultimately, to great effect, is re-envision manhood as a space where vulnerability and imagination are acceptable. At the heart of the film is a tenderness that is rarely seen in films centering Black men. This allows for intimacy, thereby magnifying the potential for humanity. Moonlight is the great coming-of-age film that has been missing from the Hollywood canon, perhaps intentionally, for far too long.
And that it occupies that position with untold aplomb, grace, and creativity only makes the achievement that much sweeter.
Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned both his B.F.A. in creative writing and M.F.A. in fiction from Brooklyn College. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Gawker, The Grio, and the Feminist Wire. He is the creator of the social justice social media community, Son of Baldwin, which can be found on Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter. His first novel is in the revision stage and he’s currently working on the second.