Moonlight chronicles the life of a queer black boy singled out for being too soft and feminine, but eventually transformations himself to a menacingly muscular drug dealer with gold teeth grills accentuating his maleness. The movie segregates the journey of an adolescent boy into manhood into three chapters. Initially, he is shown as soft and reticent, bullied by his classmates in early adolescence, which gradually increases in the second chapter when as a teenager, his sexual identity is thwarted, and eventually, in the third chapter transforms into a muscular man who still carries his reticent manner as a shield guarding his most intimate desires. Barry Jenkins, the director, uses race and sexuality as a tool to highlight the crisis in the main character’s life.
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The movie is replete with images of race and sexuality. Racial issues of the African American community are demonstrated through (1) aggressive Black masculinity that demeans anyone who is too soft or weak, (2) drug abuse and addiction, and (3) dysfunctional families and its effect on children. Issues related to sexuality becomes imminent through (1) homophobic treatment of anyone who does not follow the masculine construct of the society, (2) silent negation of their intrinsic inclinations that creates identity crisis among homosexuals, and (3) marginalization of the homosexuals within the excessively aggressive black community.
Moonlight is a coming of age film about a black boy in the 1980s Miami. However, the movie is much more than that. It is about a gay black boy growing up in a society replete with poverty, drug abuse, and aggressive masculinity. The issues that emerge in the movie are related to manliness, poverty, and drug abuse in the black community. The identity crisis of a homosexual black boy struggling to adjust to the aggressive masculinity and violence are the other racial and sexual issues discussed in the film. The black community in the 1980s Miami was very aggressive were young boys, especially teenagers, felt the pressure to become overtly violent. Drug abuse and violence were common issues. Though the movie shows no explicit violence, yet its presence is all-pervading. The aggressiveness with which young boys bully the silent and weak shows how the community frames the mind of young boys. Aggression becomes the symbol of male identity that is accentuated by heterosexual male sexuality.
The film episodically shows the growing up of Chiron in three chapters – first as a boy, then as a teenager, and then as an adult in mid-twenties. As a boy, Chiron grows up with a drug-addict mother in a loveless family environment and is bullied at school. This creates a voiceless character maintaining a dramatic reticence throughout the movie. Chiron’s silence is symbolic of the voiceless black homosexual community. Chiron, nicknamed Little in the first chapter of the film, is confused and vulnerable. He is unable to adapt to the belligerent masculinity of the black community and becomes prey to his bullying classmates. So he becomes an easy target of his peers who often refer to him as “faggot” (Moonlight).
The movie shows the internalization of the black stereotype that has been imposed on them through the ages. The poverty-stricken marginalized community is the focus of the film with no presence of white characters. It shows how the community that has internalized the black stereotype marginalizes those who fail to adhere to their notions of masculinity (Semley 58). Little is an odd presence in the highly energetic, boisterous black community that prizes sheer virile force. Thus, this odd boy becomes the punching bag for his peers as well as his mother who tries to cope with single motherhood and drug addiction. In the second chapter titled Chiron, the character is shown in his teens. He is scrawny, lanky, taciturn, and scared. His classmates attack him mercilessly both verbally and physically. Aggressive teenage hormones are expressed through blatant sex talk among black boys, which shows how the community shapes manhood among its youth. When Kevin, his only compatriot, due to his aggressor’s sadomasochistic torment assaults him, Chiron refuses to lodge a complaint against any of them. He is chided by his principal for not being a “man” for she believes that if he had been one then there would have been a few more boys sitting with him with broken noses (Moonlight). This event alters Chiron’s character completely and he aggressively attacks and beats his tormentors.
The African American community of Miami is the focus of the movie. It is riddled with drug addiction and poverty. Chiron was growing up with his single mother who was shown in an assistant nurse’s uniform in the first chapter. But when it was revealed that she too was a cocaine addict, Juan, Chiron’s surrogate father, chides her. However, Juan is rendered speechless when Chiron’s mother accuses him of being her drug dealer (Williams 41). Thus, the story shows a complete cycle of addiction that cripples the black community in Miami. Eventually, in the third chapter, Chiron becomes Black, a drug dealer working in Atlanta. The addiction-riddled society was pulled into a vicious circle of poverty.
Overall, race in the movie shows how the black community has shaped its identity with association with drugs that have increased poverty in society. Furthermore, society treasures masculine aggressiveness that becomes a symbol of black virility.
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In this backdrop of hyper-masculinity, his drug-addled mother and aggressive schoolmates, unable to accept his sexual inclinations, oppress Chiron. He is chided by his peers as “faggot” and is prey to their physical and verbal abuse. Chiron’s mother is critical of her son’s speech, mannerism, and swishy walk (Zaman 42). As a young boy, Chiron is bullied by his classmates and was called names he did not even understand. Somehow the society was already aware of Chiron’s sexual inclinations even when he was unaware of his feelings. Chiron was unable to understand his sexual urges as a teenager and as a child. He was unable to understand why his peers called him names unknown to him. Chiron asked Juan the meaning of the word “faggot”. He even asked Juan “Am I a faggot” (Gilbey 50). This shows that the question regarding his homosexuality had already been troubling young Chiron who was yet to discover his sexual orientation. However, Juan reassures him that it was perfectly normal to be gay but not right to be branded as one. So he tells Chiron, “You could be gay, but you can’t let anybody call you a faggot.” (Gilbey 50).
Homophobia is an issue that has been depicted in the film. Kevin and Chiron both are aware of their attraction yet as teenagers, both were unable to express their feelings. In a fleeting moment, under the influence of marijuana on the beach, both the boys have a romantic encounter. Though Chiron basks in the happiness of that moment, Kevin remains ambivalent and distant. Both of them were scared to express their love for one another in school, as that would attract attention and become a cause of social humiliation. Thus, when the estranged friends meet again as adults, Chiron tells Kevin, “I built myself back up from the ground up to be hard” (McGarvey 36). Thus, Chiron grows up to become Black, a symbol of the heterogeneous black masculinity. He exudes aggressive maleness with his muscular appearance and golden grills. He transforms from being the weak, lanky, scared adolescent, and teenager to a man who was tough and “hard” (McGarvey 36). However, even as an adult, Chiron hides his sexuality under the armor of aggressive black maleness. The grills on his teeth, his beefed-up body, his swanky car, and the gun he carries are shields that he wears to hide his true self from the world. When he tells Kevin that no one had ever touched him as he did, it shows that Chiron had kept his sexuality a secret from the world for he had never opened up to anyone else. Clearly, Black was unable to be open about his sexuality to society due to the stigma attached to being gay.
Racial, cultural, and sexual stereotypes set expectations among the community that has internalized the constructs. Thus, the stereotypes attached to the community by the oppressors have become a part of the oppressed society’s identity. Black masculinity is one such construct that the black community had internalized from their aggressors. This construct is challenged when a queer angel is immersed in the social milieu of the black Americans creating a dissonance. In conclusion, it should be noted that Moonlight presents all these above issues in a very subtle romantic story that narrates a black man’s love for another man.
Gilbey, Ryan. “Caravaggio in Miami.” New Statesman, 2017, pp. 50.
McGarvey, Bill. “Moonlight and Manhood.” America, 2017, pp. 36.
Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins, performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, André Holland, and Alex R. Hibbert, Plan B Entertainments, 2016.
Semley, John. “Black and Blue.” Maclean’s Magazine, 2016, pp. 56-58.
Williams, Thomas Chatterton. “Portrait of a Hustler.” Esquire, 2016, pp. 40-41.
Zaman, Farihah. “Song of Myself.” Film Comment, 2016, pp. 40-42.