What do you get when you combine queerness, Blackness, teenage love, urban struggle, and tropical weather? You get Moonlight, a film written and directed by Barry Jenkins and inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
Moonlight is more than a complicated love story. It is a cinematic love letter to the Black queer community. Auteurs Jenkins & McCraney explore non-normative narratives of Blackness and sexuality, subvert traditional conceptions of masculinity, and thoughtfully showcase the Miami locale as a metaphor for the co-existent struggle and beauty that is the Black queer experience.
Moonlight follows Chiron, a young, Black boy from the struggling Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Chiron is emotionally abused and neglected by his mother, Paula (Naomi Harris), who appears in her first scene in nurse scrubs, and develops a drug addiction. Young Chiron, nicknamed Little, finds a safe-haven and caring figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer, who, along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), gives Little a safe place to sleep and provides him with emotional support that Chiron so desperately craves.
Jenkins’ subversion of traditional tropes of masculinity begins with the complication of parental roles. Juan, a Black male who deals drugs, should for all intents and purposes join the stereotypical ranks of absentee fathers. Yet Jenkins and McCraney’s conscious choice for Juan to fulfill the parental role vacated by Chiron’s mother embodies the deviation between the presumptions, reality and possibilities for male roles in lower income Black neighborhoods.
Moonlight is divided into three chapters named after Chiron’s nicknames: i. Little, ii. Chiron, iii. Black, with a different, progressively older actor playing Chiron in each chapter. In Moonlight’s first scenes, it is apparent that something is “different” about Chiron. His classmates chase him and abuse him with queer slurs. In response, Chiron runs, hides, and doesn’t put up a fight. Young Kevin (Jaden Piner), asks Chiron why he doesn’t stand up to the bullies? Chiron’s helplessness is one that many queer people who have experienced bullying can identify with.
In Moonlight’s second chapter (ii. Chiron), Chiron is well into his teenage years. He’s entranced by Teenage Kevin (Jharell Jerome), a suave high school cat whose gold chain and sexual braggadocio invade Chiron’s dreams. Before Moonlight’s second chapter ends, Kevin and Chiron have their first sexual encounter on a Miami beach under the moonlight. The second chapter ends, however, with Kevin and Chiron at odds with each other resulting from an incident at school during which Kevin’s curation of his masculinity .
When Moonlight gets to its third chapter (iii. Black), Chiron has changed. His body, previously lanky and seemingly fragile, is muscular and significant. He is now “trapping”, or selling drugs. He wears a do-rag, drives a muscle car, and has gold fronts. He has all the facets of a traditionally masculine alpha male. Yet Jenkins subverts this with viewers’ knowledge of Chiron’s queerness. When Kevin unexpectedly calls Chiron, we see that although Chiron’s physicality has changed, his feelings for Kevin are significant.
When Chiron and Kevin meet for the first time since high school, the Chiron is dwarfed in both frame and stereotypical masculine presentation. Kevin’s occupation as a cook, in contrast to his “swag”, blustering masculinity in high school, serves as a counterpoint to the masculine implications of Chiron’s new physicality.
What does this role reversal mean for Moonlight and for its message about Black queer masculinity? Moonlight argues that the Black queer experience is not monolithic. Beyond that, Moonlight puts forth a visually delightful and emotionally powerful argument for ditching stereotypes once and for all. In the Moonlight, physicality does not indicate sexuality, one’s occupation does not reflect one’s emotional availability, and gender does not create boundaries between who can give and receive love.
Moonlight’s lasting social justice strength comes from its portrayal of racial, class, and sexual stereotypes in opposition to their traditional ramifications. Even more importantly, through its foregrounding of the locale and lingering shots that highlight Miami waters, the balmy weather, and moonlight itself, Moonlight shows that the Black queer experience is not just one of pain. It is one of beauty too.
During its opening weekend, Moonlight scored the highest per-theater box office average of 2016.
Photo: Don McCullough via Flickr http://bit.ly/2fO7bJe