Essay: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue

An essay by Robyn Hang for GWST-1501: Introduction to Gender & Women’s Studies at York University focusing on the film Moonlight as an example of representation in the media with intersectionality and inclusivity.

Throughout the year our course has always focused on intersectionality and inclusivity. We have discussed at length the importance of the lived experiences of people, and how important it is to create a platform where those stories can be shared. We have also talked about how important representation is in the media and in dominant culture. That is why I am choosing to write about Moonlight, a movie that was released last year and has won numerous awards, including Best Picture at the Oscars. Moonlight is definitely the type of movie and narrative that pop culture needs to see and that society needs to see. It humanizes being a Black man who is gay. It normalizes Black men loving each other, being sensitive and vulnerable. It also shows the realities that many of them face, whether it is confronting toxic masculinity, living in a marginalized community in poverty as a gay Black man, being “othered” and all the gendered and sexualized violence that they face for simply being themselves.

This is a story of a lifetime. MOONLIGHT, from writer/director Barry Jenkins.

This is a story of a lifetime. MOONLIGHT, from writer/director Barry Jenkins.

Moonlight explores many themes, “the main one being characters locked inside prisons of socialized oppression” (Thomas). The movie revolves around a young Black man named Chiron, which focuses on his life in three different phases, growing older as each one passes. It shows his struggle “to define, disguise and ultimately accept his own sexuality in the deprived neighborhoods of Miami” and touches “upon issues of identity, coming of age, family and romantic attachment” (Lee). Chiron represses his identity as being gay and tries to “[regulate] his behavior” (Lee), but his efforts are in vain. Bullies at his school and his own (drug addicted) mother persecute him for being gay, and he endures their harassment throughout his school career. He faces homophobic attitudes where he lives and grows up, and his “very identity is ridiculed” (Bastien). What is unsettling about it all is that he has nowhere to really go to for safe haven. He does befriend Juan, the neighborhood drug dealer, who he finds some temporary guidance in, as well as Kevin, a childhood friend. But other than that Chiron is alone in the world. I think this speaks to the queer politics we have discussed in the class. There is a lack of inclusion and diversity in mainstream LGBT community organizations, you would never find a community LGBT organization in a marginalized community in Miami. Moonlight definitely shows the reality that young, gay, Black men face today, one that lacks any type of support systems.

The film also touches on what it means to be a man or to perform masculinity. Kevin (Chiron’s childhood friend who is also the first man he ever had any relations with, sexually), is peer-pressured by Chiron’s bullies in class to beat him up at school one day. Kevin does so, in order to keep up his image of being a man and to keep his masculinity. Performing masculinity traces back to Sut Jahlly’s “Codes of Gender” video, where masculinity is perceived to be strong, always in control, and maintaining a lack of emotion. This is an image often saturated in popular media. Black male bodies are especially held to this masculine standard, even hyper-masculine standards. Hegemonic masculinity, according to Raewyn Connell, is the culturally dominant form of masculinity in any given setting (Connell, 171). In Moonlight, we definitely see hegemonic masculinity at play (a heteronormative masculinity), one that punishes homosexual masculinity and the feminine. Connell also describes masculinity as something that exists on a hierarchy, much like race, as well as the idea of masculine identities not being fixed (Connell, 171), thus making masculinity a social construct. Men performing hegemonic masculinity (which is an impossible ideal) see homosexuality and the feminine as threats to their own fragile masculinity, thus warranting the violent behavior that we see in the movie towards Chiron.

Hegemonic masculinity can also become something called “toxic masculinity”, this toxic masculinity can be seen, not only in the film but also when reviewing critiques of the film itself, saying that the “film poses a threat to black manhood” (Lee). Director Barry Jenkins says that he “think[s] American society forces Black men to fortify themselves to have to go out into the world and provide for themselves and survive” (Lee), therefore there is no room to be vulnerable or to be interdependent/need help from others. Interdependency was a concept talked about in the “Examined Life” video with Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor. Butler says that we should start “rethinking the human as a site of interdependency” because no one can truly live independently and free from help or support.

Moonlight provides the gay Black community with much-needed representation and shows the world that queer men of color are capable of love and are deserving of it. Jenkins says that exposing Chiron’s character to “as wide an audience as possible [is] yet more crucial. We don’t get to see stories about these people so we don’t really get to humanize them and see how they get this way” (Lee). I have also seen a critic refer to Moonlight’s narrative as something that has “been told countless times” (Long), and excuse my French but, b*tch where? Please, point me in the right direction. This film undoubtedly serves as a “reflective experience for audience members who rarely get to see anything loosely resembling their lives on screen” (Lee) and it “gives voice to a Black male experience that is commonly ignored” (Harris).

Discussions around Moonlight being “emasculating” are inherently homophobic (Harris), because they perpetuate that “good Blackness” should fit the mold of “heteronormative and middle-class” like the majority culture, thus “monitoring Black male emotions and behavior, including who and how they love” (Harris). Conversations like this are only hurting us, all of us, no matter our gender, sexuality or race. They only serve to continue dominant ideas about heteronormative masculinity that despises anything remotely feminine or homosexual. I loved this movie. I am so grateful to be able to watch this movie, to peer into what it would be like to walk in another’s shoes. It allows us the ability to know the pain and the struggles that come with these identities. It awakens empathy and compassion and, hopefully, change in the ways that dominant societies treat queer people of color.