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Moonlight: A Meditation on Black Male Masculinity and Social Death

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Posted March 6, 2017 by Ndidi Yasdnil in Reviews
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Moonlight: A Meditation on Black Male Masculinity and Social Death

 

Great art allows you to peak into the hidden depths of another’s consciousness, and Moonlight does just that with unparalleled grace and brilliance, in recent memory. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight offers a glimpse into black life that’s never, to my mind, been at the forefront of mainstream consciousness, black or otherwise. The film chronicles the life experiences of Chiron, the film’s protagonist, in three distinct stages: as a young child; as an adolescent coming of age; and as a grown man. A core theme of the film, the hyper-masculinization of black men and boys, in particular, is a subject for a much needed discussion that has happened but has often obscured the soul-crushing traumas that black boys experience, gay or otherwise. In this respect, Moonlight is particularly illuminating, especially in the way it presents Chiron’s relations to other boys and men throughout his life.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

 

Moonlight

A Brief Synopsis

In the first third of the movie, we encounter Chiron as a withdrawn child, who has great difficulty connecting with others in no small part due to his precarious upbringing. The opening scene begins with a young Chiron frantically running away from a group of boys his age, taunting him relentlessly with homophobic epithets and threats of violence. In a desperate effort to escape, Chiron takes refuge in what appears to be an abandoned tenement, and it is there where he meets Juan, a Cuban immigrant, who becomes a mentor for Chiron. As the narrative progresses, we learn that Chiron’s mother, Paula, is a crack addict, who is often unavailable to provide for her son’s emotional and basic physical needs. Because of this, Chiron spends a lot of time with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa, who, together, become Chiron’s support system. Later on, however, it is revealed that Juan is a drug dealer, who also happens to be Paula’s supplier; this undoubtedly leaves a lasting impact on the young Chiron. Besides Juan, the only other connection that Chiron has with another male is with Kevin, his childhood best friend, who is a constant source of encouragement.

By the second third of the movie, we learn that Juan has died, but the cause is never mentioned. At this point in the narrative, Chiron is an adolescent in high school, who is still rather isolated from his peers. The bullying has intensified, physically and emotionally, and his mother’s dependence on drugs has become so out of hand that we witness her stealing money from her son as she threatens him with violence. Teresa remains a constant support for Chiron, feeding him meals, giving him money to help support himself, and offering him a place to stay away from the traumas of life at home. Kevin and Chiron are still the closest of friends, but we witness a sexual element enter their relationship for the first time: Kevin frequently brags to Chiron about his sexual conquests in explicit detail as Chiron fantasizes privately about seeing Kevin in the act. Eventually, the two friends share an intimate moment one night, revealing Kevin’s bi-curiosity, but as the narrative progresses, their relationship quickly deteriorates when Kevin, egged on by the school bullies, punches Chiron repeatedly in order to prove his masculinity. The scene ends with the bullies repeatedly kicking and stomping Chiron bloody. Days later, Chiron retaliates against the ring-leader, striking him repeatedly with chair during class, unprovoked. Chiron is escorted off the premises by police, as a stunned Kevin watches. In the end, Chiron serves a prison sentence.

 

Moonlight

 

In the final act, Chiron has become an adult, now living on his own in Atlanta. He has developed his familiar thin frame into a muscular one decorated with tattoos, and he has acquired a commanding and seemingly self-confident demeanor. Like his father-figure, Chiron has become a drug-dealer, but he seems ambivalent about his habit. He lives not too far away from his mother, who resides in a drug rehabilitation facility. In his mother, we witness a woman who has become more self-aware, accepting responsibility for failing in her obligations to her child, and in Chiron, we witness a hurt son who finds it difficult to sympathize with his mother’s struggles but who nevertheless forgives her, in spite of apparently unresolved wounds.

 

The central image of this final act, however, is Chiron’s reunion with his childhood best friend, Kevin, who has become a successful chef. The moment is exhilarating, at first, because the way it comes about seems so unexpected, but it quickly becomes a somber one as Chiron reveals to Kevin that he has never been touched by anyone else the way Kevin touched him so many years ago. The movie ends with a moved Kevin embracing his old friend.

 

Moonlight Analysis

While themes of black queer life are central to the film, it is unclear whether Chiron, or Kevin for that matter, are, in fact, gay or bisexual, which only adds to the film’s brilliance. Consider the young Chiron we encounter in the first act of the film. Clearly, the boy isn’t even old enough to know what sex is, let alone mature enough to even think about a self-identity, in any way, yet, he is constantly written off as a “faggot”, a “sissy”, a “homo”, even by his own mother. While the viewer is not privy to the specifics of what triggers the abuse Chiron faces, it is obvious that the great difficulty he has with socializing with his peers is enough. His silence, his awkwardness, and his timidity, are all traits that make him an easy target in a culture that expects young boys to be aggressive. Of course, those traits imply nothing about sexuality, but the fact that they are associated with femininity, and with male homosexuality by extension in heterosexist logic, is enough to merit the abuse heaped upon Chiron, in the eyes of so many around him.

 

For them, it didn’t matter whether Chiron was actually gay; his crime was his ‘failure’ to be a man, even as a prepubescent child. This child’s grave ‘sin’, in sum, is his difference. It’s, in fact, a set of differences from cultural expectations that many black boys and men share, which clearly show that LGBTQ black boys and men aren’t the only victims of homophobia, a point I’ll return to later.

Many might view the sex act between teenage Chiron and Kevin as evidence of latent homosexuality, but this judgment is colored with inconsistent cultural biases regarding sexuality and gender. In the West, we formally conceive of sexual orientation as an enduring quality that reflects sex or gender-based preferences with regard to romance, companionship, and sexual activity, but the standards for assessing sexual orientation are arbitrary in practice. Up until that intimate moment between the two teenagers, Chiron, though clearly interested in his friend, lacked any real sexual experiences whereas Kevin was sexually active with girls. No single act reasonably determines sexual orientation on its own, yet this act is the sole basis of assessing Chiron and Kevin as gay. To the point that has been repeated ad nauseam, we know that if Chiron and Kevin were girls that they would not necessarily be seen as gay for engaging in same sex activity.

 

The double standard is often justified by popular ad-hoc rationalizations such as the claim that female sexuality is more fluid than that of males. At the same time, it’s common-place in our society to deny boys and men the freedom of exploring themselves beyond the stringent confines of masculinity as defined by culture(s). That boys and men ‘break the rules’ of masculinized sexuality is not evidence that male sexuality is any more fixed than that of females, which together with the fact that many of these ‘sacred’ rules are arbitrary, undermine the notion of a sharp distinction drawn between female and male sexuality.

Moonlight Movie

 

The open-endedness of the final scene between Chiron and Kevin unlocks the true brilliance of the entire film. Up until the final embrace between the two friends, it is obvious that there is a mutual urge for re-connection and fellowship, but the span in time between when we witness them as teenagers and their meeting as adults leaves us viewers with little with which to characterize their relationship. As the two interact, we’re left wondering about the motivations for Kevin to reach out to Chiron after so many years of non-communication, the intentions of Chiron in choosing to meet with his child-hood friend, and about the possibility of a romance in the future. Their contact discloses no insight into their respective self-identities or sexual proclivities, which makes the final scene all the more haunting in its poignancy. In the final analysis, those questions about the definition of their relationship are secondary to the tragedy Chiron highlights with his final words: his ongoing loneliness that he’s never been able to overcome but for that one moment in time with his dear friend so many years ago.

It’s a loneliness that can befall anyone. More than anything, the film is about the pains of growing up and coming to terms, hopefully, with who you’ve become. We are each thrown into a world that beats the individuality out of us from an early age. For some of us, the experience is far more brutal. Some of us don’t even survive. And for many of us who still breathe, we aren’t even aware of just how much of each of us is already dead.

 

Have you seen Moonlight yet? Feel free to share your thoughts!

 

Resources:

www.adorocinema.com

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About the Author

Ndidi Yasdnil
Ndidi Yasdnil


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