Moonlight: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
“So I just finished watching @moonlightmov. Amazing. Powerful without forcing itself to be. Fearfully and wonderfully made.”
This is what I tweeted as I sat in my seat during the end credits of Moonlight, the incredible brainchild of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. I invoked Biblical language because for me it was spiritual experience. Rarely does a movie stay with me long after I leave the theater. Even less likely that it stays with me for reasons other than containing overtly shocking or triggering content. The very next day I pre-ordered the home release of the movie, something I have never done before. I even went so far as to purchase both the Blu-ray and DVD versions to ensure I had copy that survived to posterity.
I expected Moonlight to be great. From the critical acclaim and attention it was getting, to the reactions of people of all backgrounds, I was excited to see the movie. But I did not know it would strike me at my core the way it did. I went home promising myself that I would write long-form about Moonlight as soon I could. It hit me with so much and impacted me so profoundly that I was convinced that I had to write about it immediately. But between work, applying for grad school, and the stress and depression that comes with both, I ended up procrastinating. In the six weeks since, I had reached the conclusion that I had missed my window, and my words would fall flat.
That is, until Moonlight won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards.
That night, it all rushed back to me how much that film meant to me. And in the context of being recognized for its greatness on the biggest stage possible, I was beside myself. I’ve been unable to focus on much else since. Moonlight is not only powerful because of what it was, but also because of what it means to us as black people, and what it means to me personally.
In my initial reaction, I described Moonlight as “powerful without forcing itself to be.” Chiron’s story was never forced or bombastic. A story about a gay black man, struggling with neglect from his mother, rejection by his peers, and the search for consistency in his life could have been overly dramatic and harrowing. But it wasn’t, at least not in the traditional sense. And I love that. What made Moonlight so emotionally raw was that it was filled with pregnant pauses and seated further in subtlety. A film that was, in part, about the power of empathy has the audience participate in the narrative with their own empathy. I love that the story is told three parallel acts, each of which could have stood on their own as a film, that follow Chiron through his life by drawing attention to the constants that sustain him and the variables that disrupt his life. Parallels drawn with the people in his life (Kevin and Paula), but also simple things (people gaining his trust by feeding him, his relationship with the water, etc.) I love how Chiron’s relationship with Kevin is loving and eventually reciprocal. Kevin and Chiron end the film mirroring as adults what they saw in each other as teenagers. I love that the film complicates masculinity and the damage it does, and links it realistically to homophobia. It shows that the two work in tandem, so that Chiron was still ostracized despite nobody but Kevin having confirmation of his attraction to men. I love how Kevin, who serves as a constant for Chiron, is portrayed as authentically bisexual without caricature. He is not facetious or untrustworthy; instead his comfort with his sexuality (“What you got to be sorry for?”) serves as a foil to Chiron’s own withdrawal and fear. Which makes his betrayal due to performance of masculinity of Chiron in Act II so heartbreaking. I love how Juan is only physically present for the first act, but his influence is felt throughout. In the last act, Chiron has the same hood ornament and even ties his durag in the same way. I love how the scene on the beach between Chiron and Kevin is emotional rather than erotic; essential, rather than gratuitous. Above all it was realistic and tender. There is so much more in Moonlight that I haven’t touched (the women in film, the “Am I a faggot?” scene, the opening of Act III). Moonlight ends on a fairly open-ended note, leaving the viewer wondering what may become of Chiron. But at the same time, the movie does not feel unfinished. Moonlight’s storytelling is distilled, subtle, and emotional in a way that many films about black men, especially queer black men, rarely are. It quietly challenges us to love completely and empathize willfully. And, of course, it does so with queer black men who are often ignored in front of and behind the camera.
When I left the theater that day in January, I also thought about what Moonlight meant for cinema, specifically as it pertained to people like me. For us, Moonlight means that we don’t have to settle anymore. It’s like presenting someone for whom McDonald’s was the peak of cuisine with a five-star meal. For some , it was like being served a specially made meal by a loved one. (For many, the restaurant scene in Act III is a powerful love scene because the care Kevin put into the food for Chiron parallelled the feelings of watching a film specially prepared for you.) Now this is not to say all that came before Moonlight has no value. After all, McDonald’s is comfortable for many, is easy to access, and is a blessing when the other option is starvation. But like a someone who has finally tasted high-quality food, going back to settling for cheap fast food is difficult. Moonlight raised the bar for not only what I know is possible, but also for what we can expect. To be blunt: Moonlight changed the game.
We no longer have compromise our morals and the safety of our marginalized to support every vile person who makes a film because that person is black. We longer have to settle for being excluded from “unapologetically black” shows about colorstruck superheroes (set in Harlem of all places). We no longer have to be relegated to the token in some televised self-insert Hustle and Flo fanfiction. We don’t have to hope anymore for a cameo from the same actor in every lily-white gay closet-key story. When we finally do have stories with us in focus, it doesn’t need to devolve into an HIV PSA or violent-black-homophobia porn. Speaking of porn, not every web series or independent production that claims to be About Us has to be riddled with gratuitous nudity and sex. We can exist beyond the eroticism of our bodies and experiences. All of these things have their own merit, appeal, value, and comfort to their audience. But we can be honest with ourselves that their quality for us is merely adaptation due to perceived lack of options or the (false) idea that more personal stories are not interesting. Moonlight means we can want better representation, and can expect it. Not everything can be like Moonlight, but more of our media can aspire to it. We (read: Queer Black People) are far too valuable to have to settle for anyone else’s scraps.
I heap praises on Moonlight, but I know that it is not perfect. And while I literally do not in the least about the opinions that white people( and straight black people) have, I do want to acknowledge those coming from queer black people who have a different experiences than I do. While Moonlight does tackle the intersections of toxic masculinity and homophobia, it is worth noting that both Chiron and Kevin still present as masculine of center. The film is devoid of femmes and transgender people or even mention of either, who are often more vulnerable to violence than masculine-of-center queer men. When Tarell Alvin McCraney dedicated his Oscar to “non-gender conforming” (as opposed to the correct term: gender non-conforming), it fell flat to femme and GNC black people for this reason. Some others criticized that the pacing was too much like the source material, and that elements from the stage play don’t translate well to screen play. I enjoyed the pacing, as I felt it let the audience put together what happened to characters without too much exposition or hand-holding. However, I understand the criticism. The final criticism is in the ending of the movie; many said that it felt anticlimactic or unfinished. I believe that part of the criticism comes from what people are accustomed to from movies in general, and more specifically from black queer media. General audiences expected a neat little book end with Kevin and Chiron, telegraphing what happens to them afterwards. Audiences used to black queer media, or even queer media in general, expected a sex scene. They at least expected an implied one. (Fun fact: The original script ended with an implied sex scene). But instead Moonlight followed the parallel structures to the end, with each part ending when its core story was finished. And that’s a huge part of what makes Moonlight so strong, despite its imperfections. It leaves out all the fluff, so to speak, to tell a powerful and personal story.
On that personal note, Moonlight meant much more to me than I anticipated. I imagined that it would be nice to see a good story about a gay black man. What I actually experienced was a story where a queer black man like me is treated as fully human and capable of depth and emotion. His fears, his doubt, his withdrawal felt so much like mine it almost hurt. As a queer black, I have lived my life hidden and afraid in plain sight. I have wanted representation and validation, so I searched for it in black media, queer media, and more recently black queer media. But all I found were people like me played as a joke, ignored entirely, or overly sexualized. My search for validation led me into a friendship that ended in abuse and heartbreak. I did not expect to find that on screen when I watched Moonlight. But I did, and it changed me. Watching Moonlight has filled me with hope. Hope that I can love and be loved. Hope that I can exist. Hope that my entire personhood can be affirmed. Beyond that, as I see the way the cast was as transformed making this film as I was watching, I have hope for the ways that people can explore love, loss, and social prisons. Over the past few months, images have surfaced of the cast being openly and unashamedly affectionate with each other. A cast of mostly presumably heterosexual black men and boys rejected masculine restrictions and forming a loving family through the creation of this film. Where I see these same men fiercely defend, stand with, and stand for queer black people at a time when that is rare among straight black men. And finally, I have hope because a story about man like me broke records and made history by being formally recognized as the best film of the year. I am hopeful because now it is known that movie with stories like mine, like other queer and/or trans people, are valued and worthy of praise.
But Moonlight has also filled me with dread. Seeing a reflection of myself on that screen has caused me to look inward and confront my own loneliness and fear. For the past few years I have resigned myself to and accepted the prospect of growing old alone. I was fine with it because, I told myself, people are annoying and marriage overrated. But since I watched Moonlight, and especially since its Oscar wins, I have had to confront why I where my chosen solitude came from: Fear. Fear drove Chiron to isolate himself over and over. I realized that I have been doing the same. As a Nigerian, as a Christian, as a black man, my sexuality marks me as a target and abomination. I decided that being alone was safer than the pain of rejection, not to mention the very real bodily harm done to queer black men. I also dread that I will still be alone when I no longer want to be. Chiron gambled his entire emotional being on that night with Kevin, which took both courage and a love that spanned time and space. I have neither, and I’m scared I never will. But despite these fears, I feel a newfound free to confront and explore myself and my ability to be loved as I am.
At the end of it all, Moonlight means so much to me because it validates me. Barry Jenkins has on several occasions stated that Moonlight was deliberate in telling a specific story, rather than general, story. In a selfish way, I am beyond overjoyed that this story is mine. I recognized Chiron, in his fear and withdrawal, and his devotion and attachment to those who love and loved him. I recognize Kevin, the first positive representation of a bisexual black man like myself I have ever seen. I recognize myself, a lonely queer Nigerian man who is driven by a deadly cocktail of fear and empathy. I have studied media representation for several years, but have never truly felt its power until now. I never dreamed that I would see a movie connect with me on this deeply personal level and change my life, much less that the same movie would be winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.
But to quote Barry Jenkins, “To Hell with dreams! This is true!” This is true, and this is real. Queer black people, we are real. Queer black men, we are real.
I am real.
And because of that, I could not be more grateful for a film so fearfully and wonderfully made as Moonlight.