Moonlight portrays black lesbian life in its joy, sadness and complexity

At a period when gay culture is overwhelmingly white, Barry Jenkins explores the experience of queer black men and these new challenges we face

The film Moonlight is extraordinary for many reasons, but to me it is most so for two. First, consideration be given to black boys to be precious, at a time when news narratives perpetually make it seem as if the United States considers them to be utterly expendable. Second, it acknowledges the effects that the stalking ghosts of premature death and incarceration have upon gay black masculinity and it manages to do so without ever diminishing the lives full of complex humanity that black gay men still manage to have in America while navigating that reality.

So often, gay lives in America are coded as white, and the forces that shape the lives of faggot people of color say, how immigration affects being Chicano and gay in Calfornia, or how police surveillance affects being black and lesbian in the New York are dismissed, as gay identity is usually swept up into whiteness. Moonlight eschews this reductivism entirely, brilliantly portraying in a lyrical tale how love and connect attempt to take hold.

The fact that there are about a million and a half black men disappeared from American society by early death and incarceration is not a side issue to black homosexual humen. Its surely no side issue to Chiron, Moonlights hero, who successfully seeks out a father figure, Juan( Mahershala Ali ), merely to lose him to an early death. And yet, Moonlight also shows how creative and brilliant black humanity is at being so much more than its pain. Director Barry Jenkinsdoesnt dwell on Juans demise as much as he does on the beauty of his embracing of Chiron in his arms in the sea, on his smile, on his joyful proclamation that you can find black people wherever you go in the world.

Another gift Jenkins devotes not just to American cinema, but to American culture, is that he illustrates black boyhood as something worthy of rooting for to succeed. It is not especially difficult to attain white boyhood precious. In the 2014 movie Boyhood, director Richard Linklater encouraged the audience to hold as precious and unique Mason, a banal and wholly average white American child who existed in an imaginary nearly all-white Texas. Mason and his friend have taken part in petty vandalism, and also drink and drive and yet, Mason , no angel, was excused and held dear in a manner that is a black child never would be.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about a Yale study where pre-school teachers were asked to watch videos of very young children to look for signs of difficulty, and eye-tracking software revealed their eyes went for the black boys first and watched them the most. And why wouldnt they? As consumers of non-fiction media in America, we are always being told that black sons are suspicious and that violence against them is justifiable.

The same week Moonlight opened, a sign celebrating Emmett Till, murdered for whistling at a white woman , was riddled with bullet holes a 14 -year-old still considered suspect, six decades after being lynched. But white boys, like Boyhoods Mason, are considered innocent by default. As we saw the same performer, Ellar Coltraine, grow up on film over 12 years, we were encouraged to see him as the future of America, worth protecting.

Jharrel Jerome as Kevin and Ashton Sanders as Chiron in Moonlights second act. Photo: David Bornfriend/ movie company handout

In Moonlight, we also watch a son, Chiron, turn into a young man over many years, though we only see him at three stages, each time played by a different performer. Jenkins and the actor who plays Little Chiron, Alex R Hibbert, are extraordinarily effective at melting your heart. We root for Little Chiron and his watchful eyes, whether he is avoiding bullies or tepidly checking out his friends as they compare penis. When he poured boiling water into the tub, my heart was in my throat that he could be hurt.

But what is more extraordinary, perhaps, is that Jenkins continues to retain our compassions as Chiron develops into a less passive and more complex person

The breadth of Moonlights aspirations, and the deft way it deals with complexity is captured at the end of its second chapter, when something happens that chilled me both days Ive seen it. Chiron( now portrayed by Ashton Sanders) approaches Terrel, a bully who had ordered Chirons friend Kevin to beat Chiron up, and smashes a chair over his head. The scene is stunning , not just as a amaze act of revenge from a character whom the audience has experienced as sensitive and sweet, but of how visually reminiscent it is of something that happened in real life. In 2015, a black man named Bayna El-Aminsmashed a chair over a white gay couple in a BBQ restaurant in New Yorks Chelsea neighborhood.

When a video of the attack ran viral without context, it led to calls for an investigation into whether the thug El-Amin had committed a hate crime against the white gay humen. But the narrative was more complex. El-Amin identified as faggot in some way, and claimed that the act was in retribution for a fight started by the white homosexual humen he hit with the chair.

Gay advocacy groups were interested in the case when it could have been about two white gays humen hit by a straight black human, but lost interest when it turned out to be about a black queer man hitting back against white gay men who had started a fight. In different ways, the fictive, slight Chiron and the real life, brawny El-Amin show that it is possible to be black, lesbian and be permitted to exact revenge against the person who is causing you ache by hitting them with a chair. These narrations muddle a clean victim-perpetrator narrative, do not go well for anyone involved, and are so human.

The person I find Moonlight with( another queer person of colouring) cheered aloud when Chiron hit Kevin, then sighed when the police presented up, because he knew Chirons decision to defend himself was going to cost him dearly.( It also cost El-Amin, who was sentenced to nine years .) By the end of the scene, we dont know for how long Chiron is going away for.

Heart-melting: Alex Hibbert as little Chiron. Photo: David Bornfriend, politenes of A24

In Moonlights third and final chapter, we do know that Chiron has gone away for some time( during which he gratifies someone who has now put him out on the block to sell drugs ); that his friend Kevin was also incarcerated; that his father figure has died prematurely, and that his mother, Paula( Naomie Harris) lives under some kind of supervised control in a rehab centre. When Chiron reconnects with Kevin, he is still on parole, and the experiences of incarceration have heavily affected everyone especially Paula, who is so broken by it she chooses to stay in the rehab centre when she could leave because she cant survive outside.

Even in the films uplifting moments, it is depressing that everyone in Chirons life is either dead or living under some kind of state surveillance. Jenkins deals with this deftly, without being heavy-handed or dismissive, and induces the characters no less worthy of our support.

The first time I find Moonlight, I was worried that it could create a dangerous takeaway message: that if black gay men want to lead full lives, they should try to fleeing from the violence of other black men and into the arms of whiteness. A read of the movie to that phase could be saying that Chirons precious boyhood could not be trusted to other black boys and men and might better be fostered elsewhere.

As the 1989 cinema Tongues Untied still so relevant today points out, it is common for black gay men to internalize a dread of one another and to buy into a move that we are to flee into the arms of a white lesbian man. Like venerating a Brad Pitt-like portrait of Jesus Christ in church, it is easy for black lesbian men to internalize societys pressure to idealize white men and believe that redemption can be had by being closer to whiteness.

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali as Juan: a model of lesbian acceptance. Photograph: David Bornfriend, politenes of A24

Since the shootings of largely Latino queer people at the Pulse nightclub, I have consciously been trying to spend time in queer communities of colour, meeting likeminded folks who also desire queerness in skin that looks like theirs. But even among us, it has been sad to learn how often black gays men tell me that out in the world, those like them wont give them the acknowledging head nod on the street. Brethren have also shared their sadness that they suppose black homosexual men wont date them because theyre awaiting a white boyfriend. So the first time I ensure Moonlight, I fretted the bully Chiron received could fit into a flight towards white narrative.

But on a second viewing, my dreads were allayed for three main reasons. First and most obviously, Chiron doesnt flee into the arms of a white man, but to his friend Kevin.( Significantly though, like Juans partner Teresa, played by Janelle Mone, Kevin is also light-skinned, teasingly calls Chiron black and only acted under the orders of the dark-skinned Terrel .) Second, Juan, Chirons father figure in the first chapter, lovingly deflects any sense of shame little Chiron could feel where reference is asks what a faggot is and whether he is one. Juan personifies some of the hardest masculinity in the film and is also a model of gay acceptance, murdering the canard that black people are more homophobic than white people.

Finally, Moonlight is an all-black world, devoid of respectability politics. While it tells the story of equivocal sexuality, it does so with unambiguous blackness and without shame. When tales eschew the white gaze and exist altogether inside of blackness, the protagonists and antagonists are all black. When Marvels Luke Cage faces persecution from other black foes and not from white people, this is not a refusal of white ascendancy. Similarly, watching black kids beat each other up in Moonlight is not a call to abandon black masculinity as insufficient to cope with black homosexuality, but to wrestle with current realities of black homosexual men in its totality.

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