Moonlight: an exploration of Black masculinity, sexuality and identity

Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, is an adapted screenplay of In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. In this piece, rather than give you a “review”, in the traditional sense, of the film, I’ll instead provide some personal observations of the film.
The cinematography is second to none. It is absolutely breath-taking and flawless. This is probably the easiest observation to make; there were so many times I felt in the movie, rather than watching. The casting was perfect, how each of the characters truly embodied and personified their roles, to the extent that it seemed as if it was a documentary rather than film. The sound track elevated the entire experience, and provided depth and clarity to each moment. Now the story.

Moonlight centres Black maleness/masculinity, but more specifically Black male sexuality as well as Black male intimacy. It is worth saying that all the characters are Black, but not in a way that it becomes a myopic or singular exclusory narrative, rather it brings you into a world that is real and that does exist. Moonlight is a coming of age story of three parts that follows a young man called Chiron, as a child, a teenager in High School, and an adult, and his attempts to navigate his reality and environment, which includes his drug addicted mother. The beauty of this film is in its layers, not in its structure (it is a three part play), or in its plot (tbh, there is none – and there did not have to be), it is in the fact that it feels as though you have been handed a polaroid photograph, and someone has sat down to tell you about their lives.

In act i, Chiron is a child who is bullied for seemingly being gay. He is helped by Juan, a local man, who is also a drug dealer, who becomes the young boy’s first real male role model. Juan imparts his wisdom to Chiron, from history; ‘There are Black people everywhere in the world, we were the first on the planet,’ to identity, ‘At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let no one make that decision for you.’ Juan also takes Chiron by the ocean, to learn how to swim. He holds him, and places his head in the water, and asks for his trust; and Chiron lays floating in his arms. The relationship between Juan and Chiron is symbolic, in that Juan helps Chiron navigate his Black male identity, and provides for him, a space in which he can explore and be himself. Furthermore, the symbolism of the ocean/water, which is the only constance in the film for Chiron, is three-fold; it is one of ablution; a purging of “sins”, and a freeing of oneself, but also a space where one can go that is free of judgement, free of the external gaze, and lastly, a place where one can go to experiences one’s own identity. This is shown in the three powerful scenes by the water, Juan and Chiron, Chiron and Kevin when they are teenagers, and Chiron and Kevin when they are adults, and Chiron looks out into the water. Another important comment worth mentioning is how Moonlight, although rooted in America, is a story that ties in the Afro-diasporic Black male experience, through Juan, who is of Afro-Cuban descent, and by the quote of his mentioned above, which really shows, this is could have been, and in reality is, the experience of Black males around the world; Cuba, Nigeria, Congo or Brazil.

Moonlight raises the question of Black male performativity; what Black men need to do to be considered a Black man, who decides these rules, and how, so often, exploring and discovering your sexuality – outside of heteronormative (straight) norms – is seen as a negation of your Black masculinity. That for so long, Black male masculinity, and representation of that, has been considered to be one of strength, muscularity, sexual endowment, and performance, aggressiveness, criminality etc (which are really remnants of the colonial white gaze), that behaving in anyway outside of these socialised norms causes social exclusion, sometimes even violence. This is essentially the experience that Chiron has as a teenager (act ii), he is dangly, and awkward, not athletic, or muscular, and discovering his sexuality, and is teased for not being able to perform (in regards to Black masculinity) in the same way as the other Black boys, but conversely, Kevin, who also explores his sexuality, is not teased or socially excluded because he does perform according to the socialised norms of Black masculinity (and keeps his sexual fluidity hidden). Chiron and Kevin arrive at the same destination, before parting once again, but take different paths to get there. One of the reasons why Moonlight has received such homophobic backlash, particularly from straight Black men, is because of their inability to conceptualise Black male identity outside of these rigid, heteronormative ideals that they have internalised as a result of societal conditioning; religion, patriarchy, white supremacy, and so forth. This also shows how crucial it is, now as ever, to understand the history of Black masculinity and sexuality, and how, historically, in so many Black communities around the world, in Africa and the diaspora, Black sexual fluidity (queerness) was considered the norm.

In addition to Black masculinity, and sexuality, Moonlight also brings to light the question of Black male intimacy (non-sexual), and how, in a world that dehumanises and reduces you to a monster, where you see no reflection of yourself, but as a beast, or a brute, bound by your physical or sexual prowess, the desire to be held, to be touched, to be loved, becomes a profound, sought after means of survival. And that intimacy, once acquired, allows you to liberate yourself from the binding rigidity of masculinity within which you quietly suffer. There are a number of Black men, who quietly long for that intimacy, but have nowhere turn, sometimes not even in their own relationships. Where do you go, to be touched, to be soft, to be held, if you are constantly expected to be hard, and strong? Also, where do you go if this intimacy is not received? We often overlook how violence and aggression can come as a result of a lack of intimacy. The relationship between Chiron and Kevin was an exploration of this intimacy, this desire to be touched and held, which is represented in the culmination of their final scene. Moonlight also make worthwhile commentary, although much more subtle, on socio-economic factors; unemployment, lack of access to education, and the school to prison pipeline that a lot of Black men are systematically disenfranchised by. Kevin and Chiron both arrive at the same destination, once again, although this time prison, but at different times and for different reasons, and both take different paths out of it. This is representative of the reality many Black men face, I stress, as a result of systematic disenfranchisement, in having to navigate the system and find means to survive within the economy whether legitimately or underground.

To conclude, a film like Moonlight is what happens when people from those communities are empowered to tell their own stories. The true impact of this film will not be judged by the many (deserved) awards and accolades it wins, or the sales in the Box office, but the impact it has on young Black boys right now who are currently struggling with the navigation of their Black male sexuality and masculinity, as well as, the Black men who have to liberate themselves from the archaic modes of thinking. The representation in Moonlight is all-encompassing, holistic, and humanising; not because they make the characters appear human, but because, to them, this what these characters always were; human. It is awe-inspiring and beautiful to see a story centred around Blackness, particularly, a form of Blackness that is reflective, introspective, looking within rather than without. Blackness is a transcendence of itself; an emulation of its own mastery, and Black masculinity and sexuality, is a child of that, a child that desperately needs to come home.