‘Moonlight’ is a Necessary Discourse on Black Masculinity and Queerness

Image courtesy of A24 via Youtube. / CC BY-NC 2.0

As of today, I have seen “Moonlight” twice. My response to watching it for the first time was purely emotional; I saw the movie through a sheen of uncontrollable tears. After finally being able to rewatch it, I was able to analyze and appreciate its technical aspects. I have spoken about “Moonlight” at length with my peers—yet when it comes to writing about it, I’m a loss for words. I don’t know how my review (or any other review) could ever do the movie justice.

At its heart, Moonlight is an intensely personal movie that documents the struggle of a person to come to terms with their identity. However, the personal cannot be detached from the political, especially not in contemporary times where racism and hypermasculinity are traits that are not only favored, but won the highest office in this nation. In light of this, it is important to watch “Moonlight” and to celebrate it for its depiction of the Black experience, for its depiction of sexuality, and for its critique of toxic masculinity.

As I (ponder over how to) begin my review, I want to add a note of caution: while the experience of watching any movie is entirely different from reading a review, it is especially the case for “Moonlight”. Now that my warning has been issued, let’s discuss and dissect “Moonlight” in the same way that it is presented: in stills and vignettes.

The movie is segmented into three parts, undoubtedly drawing from the play it’s adapted from. The first part, entitled Little, chronicles the protagonist, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert), at age six.

The opening scene introduces the audience to Juan (played by Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer. Juan finds Chiron hiding from boys who intended to beat him to a pulp, and rescues him. Though Chiron refuses to talk to Juan at first, he eventually starts to express himself to the older man. Juan becomes a father figure of sorts—while teaching Chiron how to swim, Juan cradles Chiron’s head tenderly and tells him to relax. Relaxing is not a liberty Chiron is afforded; he cannot relax, not at home with his mother’s spiraling drug addiction and not at school with boys who torment him. With Juan holding him and reassuring him, he lets go, lets the waves lap at him. The scene is awash with connotations of baptism and  rebirth; Juan is not just teaching Chiron how to swim, he is teaching him how to survive and how to thrive. As they sit in the sand, Juan tells Chiron that he is not alone, that black people are everywhere and so is humanity. Juan’s words are a reminder that Chiron desperately needs.

“In Moonlight, black boys look blue.” Juan later tells Chiron, recalling words that were spoken to him by an older woman; through his words, Juan is urging Chiron to remain soft and to not let the world destroy his softness. In saying that black boys turn blue, he’s asserting that the color black (which traditionally represents fixity and adherence to binaries) is malleable, he’s saying that masculinity and tenderness (represented by the color blue) do not have to be mutually exclusive.

From the onset, Chiron holds himself firmly, aware of the difference between him and other boys. His silence is a shield, closing himself off to a world that wants to punish him for not being “hard” enough. In a scene where the other boys are playing football, a match that soon turns into a brawl, Chiron takes a step back and watches the boys quizzically as if trying to understand why boys express themselves through punches. Later, when Kevin, his peer, asks him if he knows that he’s “funny” because he doesn’t abide by the social norms of masculinity, Chiron asks him “why?” as if he’s trying to understand why he should.

The question reverberates especially in the second act, which is entitled Chiron and captures Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) at age sixteen. Juan is dead before the start of this act. The audience never witnesses Juan’s demise but his absence nonetheless makes a huge mark—without Juan’s support, Chiron loses the ability to float, to relax.

“I cry so much, sometimes I feel like I’m gonna turn into drops,” Chiron confesses to Kevin at the beach and we hear the roar of the water in the background. The recurrence, both aural and visual, of beaches and bodies of water throughout the narrative reflects Chiron’s state of mind.

Later, as they share a blunt, Kevin confesses to wanting to cry. Chiron looks at him in shock because he cannot imagine other boys feeling the ache he does. Chiron asks him if he cries; Kevin shakes his head and says he doesn’t, but he wants to. Almost as if they are drawn together by the tidings of similar feelings, Kevin and Chiron kiss. In the ebb of the moment, Chiron apologizes. Kevin waves his guilt away, telling him he has nothing to be sorry for.

It is a reassurance that ultimately falls flat. When egged on by other boys to participate in a middle school game that involves beating up someone until they fall to the ground, Kevin ends up beating Chiron.

“Stay down!” Kevin yells at Chiron when he refuses to fall to the ground. The moment symbolizes Chiron’s vulnerability in exposing his internal world to someone in the hope that his feelings will be respected, if not reciprocated. It is also a moment that symbolizes the societal repercussions Chiron faces for daring to love outside the norm, for daring to exist outside the norm. Chiron’s softness is killed and he is forcibly pushed to the ground by other boys who kick at him once Kevin steps out.

The third act, entitled Black after Kevin’s term of endearment for Chiron, is Chiron’s quest for finding the humanity he was forced to repress.

“Who is you, Chiron?” Kevin asks him as Chiron sits opposite him. It is a question we all want to know the answer to. Is the Chiron who used to run from belligerent boys really underneath this muscled Chiron, who has become the epitome of masculinity, the man he used to be afraid of?

When Chiron gazes at Kevin, his eyes still shine with the same bewilderment, as if he still trying to make sense of the cruelty of the world. He still shields himself with silence; he still picks his words with care. He may have become “hard” now, but we can see that he doesn’t want to be.

In the penultimate scene, Chiron finally lets his guard down—he tells Kevin he’s the only man who has ever touched him. Kevin cradles Chiron, much like Juan did when he first held Chiron’s head in the water and told him to relax, much like a younger Kevin did when he first touched Chiron at the beach. The screen cuts to six-year-old Chiron standing at the beach looking blue the way Juan told him Black boys do. Chiron turns from the water and looks at the audience—he doesn’t look away anymore, and he sure as hell does not apologize.

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