‘Moonlight’ Is A Masterpiece — And It’s the Film Many Black Queer Folks Have Been Waiting On
Content note: Contains spoilers
Author’s note: This is written from my perspective as a person who is Black, queer, light-skinned, middle class, non-binary trans, assigned-female-at-birth. My lens impacts how I viewed the film, and this is my perspective only.
I would say, without a hint of exaggeration, that Moonlight is the film that I have been searching for for the majority of my life. It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to sum up the importance and beauty of this film, but I will do my best to put into words how deeply and dramatically it reached into my spirit.
As my squad of seven Black queer and trans folks filed down the aisle of the movie theater, giggling and smiling with anticipation, I was mindful of the eyes following us, summing us up. White faces surrounded us, which was to be expected in most places in the city of San Francisco at this point, and I almost dared them to “shush” us or have any problem at all. This movie was, as Solange succinctly puts it in the song “F.U.B.U” from A Seat At the Table, for us.
All throughout the film, I thought of my 14-year-old self digging through the vaults of queer cinema and media, desperately searching for some reflection of myself, and what I found was somewhat like this: white cis gay man, white cis lesbian, white cis lesbian, white cis lesbian, white cis lesbian, stereotypical Latinx person, white cis lesbian, white cis gay man.
Almost nothing had been created with queer people of color — and especially Black queer people — in mind. The characters that were allowed a space in the world of white queer folks were put there as tokens and entertainment, not from any real understanding of experience. I held on tight to Paris Is Burning, Tracy Chapman and Me’Shell Ndegeocello. They weren’t perfect — nor is Moonlight — but they were all I had.
My experiences growing up seemed to scream that I had to choose between my Blackness and queerness — I could not be both. As a child, it was made clear to me that how I chose to express my gender and attractions were not okay. The daily string of assaults and harassment was enough to — very briefly — push me into a box that was too small for me. I forced myself to wear makeup, sloppily painted my nails pink, even practiced sashaying my hips as I walked up and down the hallway. I performed.
Moonlight is told through three versions of the same character: we see “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black” as he grapples with identity, loss and abuse. From the very beginning, as “Little” is being chased and hunted down by a group of boys — a theme that continues throughout his life — we are immediately confronted with the consequences of creating boxes that are too small for any of us to realistically fit into.
Moonlight is about the complexities of Black queerness, but it about so much more. On a social and intersectional level, it is about the African diaspora, the effects of toxic Black masculinity, poverty, addiction, queerness, sexism and more. On a cinematic level, it is visually stunning, symbolic and transgresses even my own expectations of Black, queer representation in film.
It simultaneously confirms, explores and challenges the stereotype of Black communities as inherently homophobic. Although the larger setting of the film speaks to the problems of toxic masculinity that produce hatred of gay men, it also shows unwavering acceptance. In one particular scene, Juan, the Black Cuban “uncle” figure, is sitting down at the table with “Little.” When Little, who can’t be more than eight, asks what a “faggot” is and if he is one, Juan pauses, then responds along the lines of, “Faggot is something people say to hurt gay people.” And, “No, you’re not a faggot. You may be gay, but you don’t need to know right now.”
Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, nods in support, and represents for Chiron a refuge from an abusive home throughout the story.
To me, the true virtue of Moonlight is the intentional focus on tenderness, friendship and relationship between the characters of the film. Too often, Black boys and men are reduced to one-dimensional, hypersexual figures both in media and in everyday life, and any notion of vulnerability is seen as weakness. In Moonlight we see not only the loving, protective relationship between Juan and Little, but also the innocent, curious and tender affection between Chiron and Kevin.
In the emphasized and growing tension between the young men, I expected and awaited a sexual explosion between the two upon their reunion. Yet the film ends in the most unexpected of ways — with the two in a loving, comfortable embrace, same as one they had shared in an earlier scene. It was one of several unpredictable and non-formulaic moments of the film. The writing and acting of Moonlight makes the love between Kevin and Chiron seem so natural and innocent — from two boys wrestling, to the two in a loving embrace decades later — that the true tragedy of it is that it is so demonized.
It is difficult to offer much critique of this important film, which is why I chose to focus primarily on what I truly admired of Moonlight. But simply put, Black women are only villains in the film, or afterthoughts at best. Chiron’s mother, Paula, is an emotionally abusive, absent, homophobic, crack-addicted figure who is not allowed much complexity throughout the film until nearly the end.
The eventual reconciliation between Chiron and his mother is deeply moving, but comes long after she has been established as a main villain. Even the principal, in a scene after Chiron is beaten by Kevin and another group of boys, suggests it is his fault, that he needs to man up, that he is weak. While it is important to explore the role that Black women play in the perpetuation of homophobia and reinforcing limited masculinity, I was longing for a more complicated depiction of this dynamic. We get to see why Chiron is the way that he is — the Black women in the film are not given that complexity.
In all of its imperfections, symbolism and complex narrative, Moonlight is not only a compelling and gripping drama — it is one that so many Black gay, queer and trans communities have been waiting for.
Much of the marketing from the film states that it is a film that “everyone can relate to.” I don’t agree. Although the experiences of being bullied and being forced into boxes that are too small is a “universal” message, the complicated nature of Black queer experience is not. As the film rolled and we found ourselves — in our tiny safe aisle — laughing in places that no one else laughed and swelling with love, joy and sadness, I knew that we not only understood the film on some theoretical or tangential level; we knew it in our bones.
Some shit is for us, and Moonlight is one of those films.