Whiteness fears black creativity. Camilla Long’s ‘Moonlight’ review exposes that.
Whenever we create work that pushes the boundaries of what white people expect us to be able to do, they rush to contain our creativity and redefine it in ways that don’t challenge their ideas about us. The complexity in our art is turfed over to make way for an easier-to-digest take. One that doesn’t force white readers to consider that we might just be as human as they are.
This tactic is used to stop them believing in us, and more importantly, to stop us believing in ourselves. Camilla Long’s review of Moonlight, published on The Times’ website today, is a particularly nasty example of this. It’s the same line of thinking that informs takes like “Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement was wildy tacky - but I’m OK with that” or “Serena Williams sabotages own equality battle with soft-porn photoshoot.” Rather than engaging with our intentions, white commentators project their own ideas about who we are, what we do and why we do it onto our work.
It’s tiring at the best of times, but it’s particualrly spiteful to take the complexity of Moonlight and willfully reinterpate it as “a hazy, one-page meander through the journey of a gay man,” when the future of queer and black cinema will inevitably be influenced by its success.
Long’s review reveals far more about her than it ever could about the film itself. Barely bothering to hide behind the coded racist language we’re used to navigating as black creators and consumers of art, she kicks off by assuming that Moonlight’s audience will mostly be “straight, white, middle class” people. What she means, of course, is that she thinks black people are too ignorant to want to watch a film about gay people. This insidious stereotype about what we will and won’t engage with has stopped created by and for us receiving the attention and funding it deserves. 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.
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.
Nastier still is Long’s writing on Moonlight’s characters. Chiron’s mother, a nurse who survives a drug addiction is labelled a “screaming crack addict,” with no time given to explore the history of crack and America’s poor, black communities. Long points out that Mahershala Ali’s character Juan is a “drug dealer” immediately afterwards, attempting to point out a thoughtless contradiction, when it’s clearly it’s a comment on how black people are forced to survive through ways which harm our own community, as a result of oppression and domination. She goes on to describe teenage Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders as a “basket-ball player type”, and Trevante Rhodes’ adult Chiron as “a full on 50 cent lookalike.” In reality, both actors 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.
Long is at her most dangerous when she attempts to describe Moonlight’s overall message. She writes:
I don’t know if the director, Barry Jenkins meant to present such an awful, one-note picture of the African American community’s attitude to gay sex, but if there is one message here, it is that growing up “soft” means you will be beaten up and rejected and despertely alone forever. Homoesxuality, it foghorns, is the worst thing that can befall any teenage boy from the ghetto.
There is nothing one-note about Jenkins’ exploration of black America’s relationship with homosexuality. Juan and Teresa (played by Janelle Monae) encourage Chiron to see himself as more than just a “faggot” when they take him under their wing. Paula’s love for her son is undeniable throughout, even when her addiction stops her from showing it. Conversely, Chiron is bullied by his fellow students as a teenager. His sexual identity is received in different ways by different characters, but understanding that would require admitting that black people aren’t a monolith — something that Long has proven herself incapable of coming to terms with.
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.
The way Long confines Moonlight’s meaning within her own narrow ideas about blackness reflects how white police offiers project false narratives onto us before brutalising us in the street. It echoes how white teachers ignore our mental health because we’re presumed to be naturally more aggressive, or less intelligent. It’s the same thinking that made Piers Morgan perceive Beyoncé’s Grammy peformance as narcisistic, and Stormzy’s white, affluent neighbours assume he was breaking into his own house.
Whiteness maintains its dominance, in part, by presuming that we are incapable of doing or being anything outside of what it thinks of us. Long’s review is just one example of this.
But it’s not just about control. Long, like Piers Morgan, reveals an anxiety through her need to define Moonlight’s meaning. White critics devalue our work because black art challenges the presumtion that we are less human. If black people are capable of just as much as white people, where does that leave whiteness, and the cultural dominance whiteness enjoys?
There’s a poem which, thanks to the fact that it’s been mis-cited as a Mandela quote, many black people are familiar with as a message of black empowerment: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
What Long lets slip through her review is that it’s not our deepest fear at all. It’s hers.
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