"This award is bigger than Jharrel and I," a measured Ashton Sanders noted as he graciously accepted the award for Best Kiss at the MTV Movie & TV Awards alongside his Moonlight co-star, Jharrel Jerome, on Sunday night. Sanders went on to add, "This represents more than a kiss. This is for those who feel like the others, the misfits; this represents us."
Indeed, in accepting the award, and succeeding over La La Land, Beauty and the Beast, Empire, and Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, a perfectly delightful thing happened—a passionate kiss between two beautiful young gay Black men was normalized in a mainstream space. And while two men kissing is as normal an act as two consenting folks of differing genders smooching, it’s still not often seen, let alone celebrated. And when it comes to two gay Black men kissing, the sight is even scarcer.
The significance of its symbolism shouldn’t be discounted. Many people watching—particularly the younger people who are learning to accept who they are at a much earlier age than those of my generation have—needed to see that. We all did. It’s another step toward progress for gay Black men alongside the (few) others currently floating in the pop cultural zeitgeist, most recently Dear White People’s gay Black character, Lionel Higgens.
It’s also a win for Black men in general.
As Jerome thoughtfully noted during his acceptance remarks: "On a real note, I think it is safe to say that it is okay for us young performers—especially us minority performers—to step out of the box. I think it is okay to step out of the box and do whatever it takes to tell the story and do whatever it takes to make a change. And so this award is for that—for us artists who are out there who need to step out of the box to do whatever it takes to get people to wake up."
By stepping out of the box, Jerome signaled that it is okay for Black male thespians to not be so afraid of the real life implications for acts committed during their performance. As a very young child, I remember Will Smith’s non-kiss of another man in the movie Six Degrees of Separation. Back then, Smith was reportedly concerned about the gay angle of his character and refused to do a passionate male-on-male kiss facing the camera. And years later, we would learn that Smith sought the advice of Denzel Washington, who was said to have relayed the following warning: “Don’t be kissing no man.”
In 2016, Smith’s son, Jaden Smith, had the gay kiss his father refused to perform. In 2017, the poignant story of a gay Black man coming to terms with himself won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and the kissing scene, which was gorgeous and stunning as everything else in the Barry Jenkins-helmed movie, didn’t ruin the actors’ careers—it won them awards.
While I’m encouraged by the progress Moonlight brought, I’m also cautious about the limits of symbolism and wary of those moved by works like Moonlight but not the human beings whose real life experiences are reflected in it.
A lot of white liberals are patting themselves on the back for liking and rewarding Moonlight, but not doing any of the actual work to ensure young Black men can freely live an out life. Are they doing anything to secure our rights or our safety? Honestly, as lovely as Jharrel Jerome and Ashton Sanders's kiss was, the reality is that their young Black queer characters are more susceptible to HIV/AIDS than their white counterparts. Their beautiful kiss does not elude the ugliness of the realities that come with their identities.
Yes, box office receipts matter and so do award shows, but how Black gay men are represented in mass media continues to leave a lot to be desired. Will we even see a wider, more nuanced representation or will we continue to view gay men through the very rigid lens of pathology?
The MTV Movie & TV Awards (or any other awards show, for that matter) can’t save the world, but there is something to be said about people who make kind gestures and give quickly-fading praise, but offer no action. So while I feel joy for Chrion and Kevin’s kiss being awarded, I still want a better, safer world for those they represent. Now the question becomes: what are we doing to make that world a reality?