“Moonlight” is NOT A “Gay Movie”
After a period of anticipating the limited release of Moonlight, watching the black gays on my Facebook feed explode with praise over the film, and hearing nothing but positive things about it, I finally decided to see it. After seeing this film I was put at ease because it has been praised as a “black gay movie.” To provide some context, I am a black bisexual man, so erasure in films like this is typical and unwavering. There are always approaches to conversations around gay folks and their lives, and these sources of media are expected to be acceptable for the transgender, bisexual, asexual, gender non-conforming communities and so on. However, a “black gay movie” is the very last thing that Moonlight will ever be.
Yezmin Villarreal, in The Advocate, named the film as a “coming-of-age film about a gay black youth”; Drew-Shane Daniels, in Ebony, refers to the main character’s story as one of a black gay man and reiterates the very valid critique of how the narrative of black gay men is ritualistically presented; Brandon E. Patterson of Mother Jones writes that the film follows the “coming-of-age [story] of a gay black boy”; and Steven Thrasher, in The Guardian, claims the film to “portray gay life” (even though he pinpoints the accuracy of a tale of ambiguous sexuality). All of these writers made very important critiques about the genre of black gay cinema, and gay cinema in general, as well as the significance of a film like Moonlight. However, none of these things make this story “gay.”
Thrasher hit the nail on the head when mentioning the ambiguous sexuality of the main character, Chiron. The nigh asexuality of the main character having only had one sexual experience in the entire span of his life and the film, presents a series of critiques around how people have conversations around black male intimacy, masculinity, and sexuality. Conflating these conversations with being gay is a grave injustice not only to the audience and the content, but the creators as well. When I read and hear how many black gay folks call this black gay cinema because of their experiential connection to the film, I recognize that the film itself and its connection to the audience cannot validate this title. There are bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, and even straight folks who identified with the same struggles and experiences Chiron had in the movie — does that still make this black gay cinema?
Moonlight cannot and refuses to be consolidated to “the black gay experience” because fluidity and ambiguity in gender normativity, sexuality — and the emotionally crippling effects of masculinity — are experiences of all young black boys. One of the things that makes this film great is that it rips the rug out from under those sorts of expectations. Chiron, from his youth, is bombarded with physical and verbal assaults from his mother and his peers for perceptions of homosexuality without having ever spoken a word about his sexuality, or having had a sexual experience.
From the beginning of the film we are met with a young black boy whose sexual identity is thrust upon him by the outside world (as well as by the audience); we follow him through intimate bonding with other afro-latino men in non-sexual and non-romantic ways — even observe his rejection during a bathroom scene with his peers (who perpetually harass and bully him) as they compare genitals; we watch him share is first intimate sexual experience with his childhood friend Kevin by whom he is accosted at school. When reaching the final act of the film, we learn that after that he never had any other intimate or sexual experiences with anyone at all — ultimately boiling down to a final scene where Kevin intimately holds Chiron, consoling him.
I think that it can be agreed upon that these representations of intimacy and ambiguity in attraction, sexuality, masculinity, and how emotional competency plays a key role in all of it are strong aspects of this film. To think that these kinds of experiences construct the story of a black homosexual man is just as fallacious as equating them strictly to a bisexual or trans person. Moonlight is, more appropriately, a “Queer Interest” film. I do not mean queer as being conflated with homosexuality. When I refer to queer, I refer to the deviation from the normative. Specifically, in the case of the film, deviation from the toxic traditionalism of black male intimacy as constructed by cis-gendered heterosexual black patriarchy. Now, that was a bit of a mouthful, but it means that to be of Queer Interest is to live outside of the margins of black patriarchy. Some may or may not align with this understanding, but the black boys who have been conditioned to say “no homo”; the black boys who have been scorned for shedding tears, hugging and kissing on their brothers and male friends; the ones abused and left to cope on their own — they all lie within Queer Interest because they are just as much victims of toxic black masculinity as the bi or trans folks they have come to live alongside.
The harmful life altering principles that toxic black patriarchy has assimilated into many of us (e.g. biphobia, transphobia, femmephobia, homophobia, etc.) are in dire need of interrogation by black gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, bisexual, trans, and monosexual communities alike. The effects of such ideological institutions are far reaching and insidious without prejudice. Moonlight exposes this phenomenon through its tale of young Chiron and his relationships with Juan and Kevin, as well as through the ambiguous conversations around sexuality — not to mention Chiron’s seeming lack thereof. It becomes a project in narcissism to crown this film “gay cinema” because it steals so much from a film by superimposing the personal experiences of the black gay male onto a film that tells the story of so many black male youth; a youth convinced through shame and violence that they somehow do not belong. Moonlight and its silence toward ascribing Chiron’s life with any sexual identity or drive is a testament to the very minute role that it plays in the overall development of his character — his queerness being a catalyst at best. The question remains, however, what is there to be said about the audience and critics imposing “gay” onto the film without hesitation?