'Moonlight' and the Burden of Black Creatives

Barry Jenkins' 'Moonlight' refutes the idea that only traditional black characters warrant celebration.

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Complex Original

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In a recent interview, Barry Jenkins was asked if he felt pressured to “make something representative, to tell the big story?” The director and screenwriter behind the beautiful Moonlight responded, “I think there was an element of that. The movie is about very specific characters, in a very specific neighborhood, going through very specific ordeals. In that specificity there’s something universal, but also there’s a statement on the black experience.”

There is a burden typically placed on black creatives. Rarely, if ever, are we allowed to share works that speak to specific experiences. Our art often has to forgo the individualistic in favor of the collective for the sake of selling a point to the masses. In Moonlight, which is loosely based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the movie does indeed address universal themes like love, friendship, identity, and manhood. But there is much specificity in how they are explored. When it comes to the black experience, Moonlight tackles subjects like hypermasculinity and addiction in the aftermath of the War on Drugs. Those are issues that have uniquely impacted the black community at large, though I wonder if those who see the film and (rightfully) praise it will know that is not the only black experience.

A.O. Scott, chief film critic of the New York Times, recently said, “In the prestige movies that court critical and academy approval, Black people are often symbols and symptoms, their stories parables of pathology, striving and redemption.” For directors like Nate Parker, his intent with The Birth of A Nation was to offer imagery speaking to black strength, but as his past comments on why he would never play a gay character suggest, he, too, falls victim to the idea that only certain types of black characters warrant celebration. 

As much as I enjoyed Moonlight, it does fit neatly into the kind of black movies Scott notes, that net critical and Academy approval. I’m troubled that some of our stories only make it to the mainstream when they feature pathologized imagery like the crack addicted black woman or the sad gay black man. Still, one hopes that those who see Moonlight and find it moving come to realize the black experience and the gay Black experience can be more than this. In the meantime, this movie at least offers nuance and complexity to characters and stories like these.

It’s best to view Moonlight as it presents itself: as a coming of age story of its protagonist, Chiron. The film is divided into three chapters chronicling Chiron’s journey to manhood. Chiron, who is played by three different actors, is the child of a crack-addicted mother, being raised in a poor neighborhood in Miami.

In the first third of the film, we’re introduced to Chiron, or Little as he’s called then, who’s much smaller than the other boys surrounding him. As a result, he is perceived as soft and subsequently picked on. While running away from antagonizers, he escapes into an abandoned home (serving as a crack house) where he soon meets Juan, played by House of Cards alum Mahershala Ali. Juan, along with his girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monae, take care of Chiron in ways his mother Paula doesn’t. There is a poignant scene in this segment in which Chiron asks Juan what a “faggot” is—a term he learned from his mom. Juan points to it as a term used to dehumanize gay people. When Chiron asks if he’s gay, Juan, after looking at Teresa, let’s him know that is something he’ll have to figure out on his own.

In the second block of the film, he comes to grips with this through his friend Kevin, whom he surprisingly shares a passionate first sexual encounter with on the beach. Some critics have written that Chiron was “hiding” his sexuality, but there is a difference between guising one’s sexuality and requiring time and experience to uncover it. Before Chiron is able to fully explore their connection, an incident occurs that dramatically alters their relationship. 

The aftermath of those decisions and actions are explored into the third part of the film. Chiron, now an adult, has reconciled with a now sober mother and then hears from Kevin—sending him back to Florida. The film doesn't end in a big, splashy way, but that's what makes it perfect. And thankfully, there is no moralizing in the film; we are just bearing witness to one gay Black man’s journey and it is up to us to take from it what we may.

Nate Parker may not want to apologize for past events leading to him being accused of sexual assault (he should), but there are past comments he made about gay men and black manhood that he’s yet to make a sincere act of contrition over. Aside from the aforementioned, promptly deleted 2014 BET interview in which he said he would not play a gay character in order to “preserve the black man,” Parker made a similar claim at the Essence Festival, declaring, “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons.” 

Parker is like some of the men in Moonlight and just like the men so many of us gay black men have come across in school, in church, at the barbershop, on the street, and so many other spaces. They think of us as less than men because we are men attracted to other men. Men of all races have contend with the misogyny that births homophobia, but black men have to contend with a rigid idea of masculinity. These men think they are protecting black manhood when in reality, they’re merely serving as cheerleaders and puppets of gender rules derived from white patriarchy. 

But as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, once so beautifully stated, “Different does not mean deficient.” When I see Chiron, taking everything life has thrown at him and living, I am reminded of how much stronger we are than these kind of men. Those men keep us stubbornly stagnant. 

Moonlight helps us all move forward.

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