When it comes to films about sexuality, Black gay men have had our share of low budget movies with mediocre acting and stereotypical storylines. It’s rare these days to see anything authentic come across the big screen, let alone something tackling sexuality and gender norms. That’s why when I saw the trailer of Moonlight I didn’t have high expectations.
However, after seeing the movie during a sneak preview with the creator and cast, I can now confirm: Moonlight is a groundbreaking film. Through the work of writer-director Barry Jenkins, Moonlight offers a much-needed nod to the depictions of same-sex desire, identity and masculinity. The film is a rare gem that ruminates the depth of the main character by capturing the resilience of a poor, young Black boy while at the same time challenging relationships between two men.
Even before its nationwide release, Moonlight received critical acclaim with critics praising the storytelling, direction and visuals—and rightfully so. As one of the darlings of fall premieres and festivals, which also includes Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, and Denzel Washington’s Fences, Moonlight scored this year’s biggest per-theatre average, bringing in more than $410,000 in just a handful of theaters and tons of Oscar buzz.
The film chronicles the journey of the main character, Chiron through three defining chapters of his life from childhood to adulthood. As he struggles growing up in Miami being chased through the ‘hood and called slurs like “faggot” from his classmates, Jenkins beautifully uses race, class, and sexuality as the backdrop to tell this poignant story. It is easy to think the movie only focuses on sexuality; however, the film offers a more relatable story about Black boys finding their own identity. In this movie, I saw pieces of my childhood, like wondering what made some boys think I was a “faggot” and learning how to stand up for myself.
“I’ve always considered myself an ally to LGBT causes and it was an opportunity to put that empathy into action,” Jenkins said during the event I attended in Washington D.C.
Although Jenkins is straight, throughout the movie he doesn’t undercut the queer lens of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which Jenkins adapted for film. McCraney, a Black gay man, often challenges gender and sexuality in his work, and in the movie he saw much of himself.
“It’s a palpable snapshot of memories and dreams that [are] difficult to sit through,” McCraney told LA Times. “The first time I saw it, I went through a pretty bad depression. The second time, I burst into tears midway through. It’s hard. It’s rough.”
Indeed, some of the scenes make you want to jump through the screen and try to save Chiron, who is played by three different actors. However, Chiron had to work through his shame, by standing up for himself and recognizing he had the autonomy to call the shots in his life. Like many of us, Chiron had to find his voice on his own.
Aside from the latest examples of toxic masculinity, Moonlight reminds us of the importance and solace two men can find within each other. It’s hard to call the main character in the film gay because he never identified as such; however, most of his intimate connections in the movie were between him and another man. And that does not make a gay or “sissy.”
For this reason, Moonlight underscores the experiences many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth face when creating their own family and support system. Not just specifically to the Black community, acceptance and lack of support is often identified among all LGBT youth as an issue. Hell, even I remember as a young Black gay man being concerned about the negative responses to my sexuality from my family and close friends.
It was crucial for me to connect with people going through the same challenges I faced, feeling awkward and different. Many times these people were “thicker than blood” and my first line of support before I reached out to my own biological family, as Chiron discovered in the film. Chiron’s network extended beyond his abusive mother – he had no choice. Eventually, he found comfort in the paternal relationship he formed with a local drug dealer, who acts as a father figure to him, and his girlfriend, who provided him with home-cooked meals and positive affirmation.
Often times when we are introduced to Black gay characters, it often involves a bleak story about either being HIV-positive, sexually assaulted by family members, or the “down low” boogieman cheating on his wife. It’s important to realize we have to go beyond these narratives when talking about “coming of age” movies, and recognize Black gay men have a history of resilience and overcoming challenges. Black gay men are much more than sexual beasts and dysfunctional individuals.
Black gay men deserve the space to be human- on and off screen.
Although Jenkins uses a few dark innuendoes we’ve seen before, I can appreciate him taking us on this journey of a young Black boy coming into his own identity that will resonate with so many Black boys like myself. This film is not just another Black gay movie, it is colorful, creative, and reflective—and well worth your time.
Moonlight opens nationwide today.
Drew-Shane Daniels is a Washington, DC-based digital strategist and freelance writer who has penned articles for Slate, The Grio, VIBE, and Fusion, among others. Follow him @drewshane.