“Moonlight” Shines a Light on Black Masculinity and Sexual Identity

"Moonlight" poster. A24
“Moonlight” poster. (A24)

The buzz right now is for a film named Moonlight. The film, the second for writer-director Barry Jenkins, tells a haunting tale of a boy named Chiron whose battle throughout life is coming to terms with his identity as a gay black man. That identity is complicated by merciless taunts at school and a home life surrounded by drugs and hard drug dealers.

The film looks like it’ll become one of the most important films of the latter half of 2016 and into 2017, and rightfully so. When popular culture thinks of black men, they often think of them as how they are presented in Moonlight; as gangbangers and drug dealers. But in Moonlight, even those characters—including the main character, who later becomes a drug dealer himself in Atlanta because that’s all he’s known and that’s probably how he feels he can best hide himself and fit in—have a tenderness and humanity that is often denied them by society and, consequently, by other forms of media.

Collider’s Brian Formo touches on this topic in his review, writing in part:

Yes, Moonlight is important for its message of not just acceptance of homosexuality within black communities, but also an embracing of boys and who exist outside of that hardened world, and how masculinity has many different expressions, sexually and otherwise. But Jenkins’ script casually drops many lines about how a character’s time in juvenile detention or jail—or even a funeral—to show how constant incarceration is in their community. ‘When I was in jail’ is said as casually as ‘when I was in middle school’ like it’s just a natural progression of growing up. This is not something that is hammered home but it’s an important and sad portrait that runs parallel to our race conversations today of the over-imprisonment of black Americans and a lack of inroads to leave communities through better opportunities.

The constant denial of black male homosexuality is constantly regurgitated in TV, movies, music, and even magazines; OUT Magazine is featuring the film’s lead, Trevante Rhodes, in its feature spread about Moonlight, but this also is one of the few times OUT Magazine has even featured a black man as a feature story. Just taking a look at their main page, you won’t find much intersectionality; Frank Ocean and Pres. Barack Obama are the only black men that has been prominently featured recently on the site; the rest are articles about black women and white gay men. Even then, one has to wonder if the black women being touted are being celebrated for their catchphrases and antics and for some readers to pull “YAAS QUEEN”-esque appropriation tactics, and not for the sake of true intersectionality.

However, black American culture as a whole has a lot of work to do when it comes to accepting our LGBTQ men. Individually, we all have our different ideas about accepting the sexual spectrum. But on the whole, there is still the stigma that black LGBTQ men face when it comes to being accepted by certain members of the family or by society itself. The idea that the black man is only supposed to be a “workhorse,” a racialized Übermensch and hypersexual fetish, is something that Americans have got to exorcise from their thinking.

From where I’m sitting, black Americans seem to carry that fetishized idea of the black man as a deep wound that we’ve now grown attached to without realizing it. In many ways, black Americans have held onto things we shouldn’t because we know that the things we hate are something the only ways we’ll be accepted by society. Colorism, for example, is wrong, but many still hold onto colorism because of the leverage they can gain from it. Masculinity, something that had been both denied from black men and exaggerated in others’ perceptions of black men, is a thorny subject, and the ability to finally live in masculinity as freely as they possibly can is something many black men take very seriously. But for some, they believe that freedom is at risk due to other types of masculinity, including the masculinity of gay black men. The gay black man is thought of as a threat, as being something that will once again deny other men their right to be men in their own image. That’s completely illogical thinking, though. Moonlight is showing us the loss, confusion, and lack of identity many gay black men feel, and the film wants to ask if the cost of invisibility is too high (answer: it is).

It is comforting to see that Rhodes felt this part was his to play. Rhodes, being a straight man, never hesitated from the role and, in fact, found a lot of his past self in it. As he told The Hollywood Reporter:

“…[W]hat resonated with me is that at a younger age I struggled with identity because I didn’t know myself. I knew who I wanted to be, and I knew what I wanted the world to think I was, but I didn’t know who I was. I think everybody at some point goes through that…The fact that [Chiron] was homosexual just added to the beauty of the story for me.”

And, as he said to OUT:

“Our country is shit right now. Being a black person in America right now is shit, being a homosexual in America right now is shit, and being a black homosexual is the bottom for certain people. That’s why I’m so excited for people to see Moonlight. I don’t feel like there’s a solution for our problems, but this movie might change people. That’s why you do it–because you feel like you’re doing something that matters. This is someone’s story.”

He also told OUT about how he saw how much trouble his friend, who is gay, had when he was trying to find himself.

Rhodes certainly stands as a man other men, particularly some black men, should pay attention to and learn from.

In closing, here’s Rhodes in his own words as well as Moonlight’s trailer:

What do you think about Moonlight? Give your opinions in the comments section below.

Other reviews:

Moonlight is a Heartbreaking Portrait of Often Overlooked Lives | Vanity Fair

‘Moonlight’ Review: Barry Jenkins Delivers a Mesmerizing Look at Black Life in America | IndieWire