Moonlight and the Complexity of Black Men

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Debbie has seen Moonlight; Laurie hasn’t, yet. And neither of us regularly reads the Times of London. But both of us were struck by Josh’s extraordinarily clean critique of Camilla Long’s review of the movie in “the Times.”

Debbie: I really loved this movie; my (white gay male) companion was less impressed. I found it atmospheric, moving, quiet, thoughtful, and rich; he found it disconnected and somewhat jarring. Both of us liked the division into three parts (child Chiron, teenage Chiron and mid-20s Chiron), but my friend was disturbed by the ways characters disappeared and stories were incompletely told. To me, it just felt like life.

Camilla Long’s review is behind a wall; you can get it by going to the London Times site and giving them your email address. Basically, she trashes this movie (and Hidden Figures), saying:

 Moonlight barely has 10 minutes of plot. I’m not even sure it’s fair to call it a plot, more a hazy one-page meander through the journey of a gay man, Chiron, shown at three stages of his life. What few characters the film contains are barely sketches. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a screeching crack addict. His only adult friend is a dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). …

 if there is one message here, it is that growing up “soft” means you will be beaten up and rejected and desperately alone for ever. Homosexuality, it foghorns, is the worst thing that can befall any teenage boy from the ghetto,

Josh’s critique has exactly zero patience for Long’s opinions. As he says:

By the end of paragraph one, Camilla has colonised a film that contains exactly zero white people, centred herself, and marginalised how black people — black queer people in particular — have connected with the film.

Props to Josh (who writes under his first name only) for calling her “Camilla.”

Her first gripe with Moonlight is that it “barely has 10 minutes of plot,” which completely misses the point that guides Moonlight: black queer lives are shaped by the intersecting oppressions that haunt our identities. Our futures are determined by how our families receive us and how the state perceives us. Fragmentation is found where the state has denied us freedom, and emptiness is found where our loved ones have been too broken down to understand us and our schools too lazy to protect us. If it doesn’t feel as though Moonlight is driven by plot, it’s because the ability to define your life in a way mainstream white film reflects is a privilege not often afforded to people like Chiron. No film has ever articulated the reality of the most disenfranchised black, queer people like Moonlight, and if Long can’t get to grips with such a fundamental part of the film, she’s unqualified to be publishing an opinion on it that thousands will read.

The film opens with young Chiron running away and hiding from a bunch of other kids, and being rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), whom Camilla writes off as “a drug dealer,” which he is. He’s also the man who patiently finds out where Chiron lives and returns him to his mother, and stays in Chiron’s life for a while, providing — among other things — loving, nonsexual touch.

Because the film, and especially Chiron, are centered far away from the verbal, viewers have to draw our own conclusions–or simply keep our minds open. It may be that Juan’s touch helps shape Chiron’s sexuality, or Juan may be responding to something in Chiron, or whatever. What’s clear is that Chiron and Juan take sensual joy in each other, just as Chiron and Kevin take sexual joy in each other in the later segments.

Josh’s critique of Camilla is trenchant throughout.

Both actors [Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron] portray fear and longing as it manifests in bodies constricted by hypermasculintiy with a sensitivity that is deserving of actual critique. But to admit that would mean admitting that black men are complex — so instead she falls back on the most tired of stereotypes.

Here’s just one more passage:

The message behind Moonlight isn’t that gay black people are doomed to misery in the ghetto. It’s that we contain infinite possibilities, which are, one by one, snuffed out by racism and homophobia. It meditates on the power of reconcilliation, undertstanding and forgiveness on an intracommunity level. It shows us that the power to take control of our lives was within us, but has been taken out of our hands by the oppressive structures we’ve been subjected to since our ancesters were taken from Africa. There is so much hope in Moonlight, if you’re prepared to acknowledge that blackness is capable of hope, and that our oppression is the work of outside forces, rather than our own incompetence.

Moonlight completely deserves its Best Picture Oscar nomination. See it, if you haven’t.  And see it through the lens it was made through, not the lens of whiteness reshaping the film into false stereotypes that make it feel safe and comfortable.