Moonlight And The Preservation Of Black Manhood

How Barry Jenkins, screenwriter and director of ‘Moonlight,’ is redefining the black queer narrative

Moonlight strips us of our blackness. In the moonlight, an object might cast a shadow, but its color is gone. The significance of this is not lost on Barry Jenkins, screenwriter and director of Moonlight, which is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Moonlight follows Chiron from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, particularly how he copes with his homosexuality. Set in the ghettos of Miami, the film is part coming-of-age narrative, part family drama, and part star-crossed romance. During one particularly dazzling sequence, when Chiron stands on the beach and stares into the Atlantic Ocean, he is cloaked in a beautiful shade of blue. The sight of it was freeing to not only Chiron, but also to me, watching Jenkins’s film as a gay black man. Moonlight ascribes us the power to not be the boogeymen that white men — often those wielding a gun and a badge — see us as. It gives us a reprieve from the political act of self-love, the exhaustion that comes with having to constantly reaffirm that black is beautiful and that our lives matter. America has no description of the blue body besides the fact that it glows like freedom.

Similarly, when bathed in moonlight, there’s no need for the performative acts of masculinity that come with blackness. Performative masculinity can lead to violence when confronted with disrespect — it’s sometimes all that can protect us from the tightening of a rope, where a vulnerable child like Emmett Till was when white men perceived that he’d dared to express sexual interest in a white woman. That is why a black man is never allowed to simply be; he must constantly show that he cannot be vulnerable to white peers. Unfortunately, this can also present itself as a toxic hypermasculinity, the kind that fosters misogyny and treats sexuality as a status symbol in regards to black men, but as a moral flaw in regards to women. In its worst-case scenario, it leads to sexual violence against women.

James Baldwin tackled the masculinity of the black male on many occasions, but none so eloquently as in 1962’s Another Country. Using the character Rufus to combat the hypermasculine protagonists presented in literature — like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example — he described what it was like to engage in performative masculinity, to force oneself to exert dominance over a woman. Rufus is left “drained and shaking, utterly unsatisfied,” but he continues the relationship because he feels like a man. He feels like more of a man than when he allows himself to have sexual relationships with those of the same gender, because in regards to the fragile nature of black masculinity, any form of femininity can be a weakness. And what’s more of a weakness than homosexuality?

The first time I became aware that it was dangerous to be gay as a black man was when watching a news broadcast. In my hometown of Milwaukee, I lived perilously close to the dwelling of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The knowledge that he killed young men who were not white, young men whom he also had sexual relationships with, was enough to scare me from admitting my own sexual attractions. And then my uncle died. My uncle had lived with his partner, though I’m not sure I knew what that meant at the time. All I knew was that when he died, we scarcely spoke of him except for when family members fondly told me that I reminded them of him. In contrast, I’ve never had a relationship with my father. He was, as The Temptations put it, a rolling stone. Black men are supposed to learn masculinity from their fathers, so in his absence, I learned mine from the media I consumed.

There is a similarity in the adolescence of Moonlight’s Chiron. His father is also absent, and yet his mother prevents him from watching television. She prefers that he read books, that he stimulate his mind. These are the things that get the sensitive Chiron beaten up at school, of course, so he has to learn masculinity from another source. Enter Juan, a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing. In most narratives, the drug dealer is a violent sociopath and the very pinnacle of what we perceive masculinity to be. But the genius of Jenkins’s film is that, at every turn, he betrays our notions of what black masculinity is. Juan has a relationship with Theresa (Janelle Monáe), and by all accounts, he treats her with respect. When other kids call Chiron a “faggot” at school, Juan tells him that that’s a derogatory name for gay men, and that even if Chiron is gay, he should never consider himself a faggot.

Jenkins uses the prototypical ghetto king of a drug dealer to strip away our notions of what it means to be a man. This isn’t a drug dealer who has learned his trade from Scarface. He’s not shown beating women. He’s shown caring for a child who can barely speak about the torture he receives daily at school from children who do exhibit qualities of toxic masculinity. Chiron is granted a father figure in Juan, and this surrogate relationship speaks volumes for how Jenkins wants us to view relationships between black men.

This is where the story Moonlight tackles becomes bold. For white queer narratives, there’s a sense of wanting to belong in the white heteronormative world that oppresses them. Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain want to live in isolation together, alone with their winters, herding sheep. Russell in Weekend has to confront his fear of public displays of affection. The entire series of Looking is a surrogate for the marriage equality movement — its goal was to show that gay men could be just as mundane as heterosexual ones. But for black queer narratives, there’s not only the struggle of accepting your queer identity, but also navigating a world that has little use for the black body.

After all, it’s James Baldwin who said, “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society.” Take, for instance, the recent Out Magazine interview with virulent racist Milo Yiannopoulos. His racist opinions are merely fodder for clicks to a magazine that covers predominantly white queer issues. The hate he mongers toward black men is inconsequential.

Previous black queer narratives, powerful as they might be, have fallen into the trap of presenting a black male sexuality that acquiesces to white narratives. Keith on Six Feet Under, one of the best representations of a black gay man on television, is a police officer. His masculinity is wrapped up in the imagery of law enforcement, and therefore his black masculinity is never a threat. His relationship is also an interracial one, where he exists to offer emotional support to the frequently distraught David. On the flip side is The Wire’s Omar Little, a hypermasculine drug dealer who is also unapologetically queer. But his almost supernatural ability to rule the streets and strike fear into the hearts of men like a bizarro Batman means that Omar never has to deal with his black masculinity in the real world. David Simon, the series creator, crafted a fairy tale that has no relation to any gay black male in real life.

Telling stories that reflect real life is how we change the conversation around black queerness. It involves bold storytelling and bold acting, as well as a commitment from black men who are beholden to a toxic masculinity like The Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker, who once said he would never play a gay role in order to “preserve the black man.” But the beauty in Moonlight is how it manages to preserve black manhood by actively destroying performative masculinity at every turn. Speaking to The Guardian, Trevante Rhodes (who plays Chiron in adulthood) says, “Growing up, you’re told that being a black man, you have to be that much better than your counterparts. You have to be stronger, more masculine and the most dominant force in the room at all times. So that automatically puts up that block and you don’t think it’s possible to have any kind of vulnerability about you.” But the entire third act of the film acts as a dressing down of this type of masculinity. Operating like an elegiac memory play by Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, it shows us how Chiron has transformed himself into a strong, masculine boogeyman who could terrorize his former childhood bullies. But confronted with his longtime friend and first sexual experience, Kevin, Chiron casts off his chains, the grill in his mouth, and succumbs to the haunting melody of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” a song about vulnerability and romance.

Playwright McCraney lived in London for part of his life, where he also produced several of his plays. Speaking to The Guardian in 2011, he said, “Over here, I talk about being effeminate and people correct me: they think I’m very masculine. Maybe to you, I think, but to the people back home. ... I guess black guys have a different archetype that they have to hold up in America. Like there’s a built-in way to conduct yourself in public over there. In London, that’s a bit more fluid. So people don’t automatically assume or wonder ...” For artists such as McCraney or Baldwin, who spent much of his life in Paris, there comes an awakening with traveling to another country, with escaping the sturm und drang of performative masculinity, of exhausting yourself to survive in a nation that forces black men to be fierce and, in turn, punishes them for it. But for the Chirons of America, those who can only imagine themselves as something beyond America’s cruel treatment of blackness, the moonlight is enough.