“What’s a faggot?” asks young Chiron, known as "Little," his head bowed with the weight of a sadness too heavy for his age. A painfully shy boy, he swathes himself in silence as a means of self-preservation.
He’s the target of merciless bullying that only worsens as he gets older, when he learns firsthand what a faggot is, how a faggot is treated and what a faggot must do in order to survive.
Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is a quietly brilliant film that touches upon a number of themes, such as race, identity, homophobia, coming of age and, most remarkably, the fragility of black masculinity. How it leads to a crippling inability to communicate—not thoughts so much as feelings—as well as an ability to love and be loved.
A fateful encounter as a teenager changes the course of Chiron’s life, awakening a desire he’ll never be able to put to rest, if only to bury it deep in his memories as something precious.
It's a rare film that so beautifully looks at the complexity of being a black queer man. It's an identity I’ve been exploring, both for myself and in a more abstract sense, as our presence in the media as multi-faceted individuals is growing.
In a recent piece in The New York Times, Kaitlyn Greenidge elucidates:
The other, who has been relegated to the background character, wise outcast, dash of magic, or terror or cool or symbolism, or more simply emotional or physical whore, is expected to be the main event, and some writers suspect that they may not be up for that challenge.
In mainstream media, black people—and by extension black characters (and certainly black queer characters)—don’t have the same depth of feeling or understanding as white characters.
Of course, if you ask any black person they’ll tell you the exact opposite: that survival as a black person in America breeds a capacity for hurt that the country is only beginning to understand now, with the mounting number of dead black boys felled by the very people meant to protect them.
Queerness only exacerbates that hurt, so that the understanding we have as queer people of color is deep enough to drown in, as many have done. Would they have been rescued by seeing their lives reflected back at them?
Growing up, I never could have imagined Moonlight, a piece of art that validates my very existence and speaks to the isolation I felt as a black gay boy, crushed by a sadness I couldn’t place, stunned into a silence I couldn’t understand, and punished for a crime I couldn't name—being “the other,” the “faggot.”
The abuse Chiron received from the boys who looked like him but seemed almost personally offended by his inability to conform to the rigid standards of masculinity imposed upon them by a culture that prizes toughness, violence and intimidation—buoyed by a system of inequity that makes those qualities all but necessary for survival—felt all too familiar, almost uncomfortably so.
But therein lies Moonlight’s brilliance: The film dares to make the viewer uncomfortable; whether it’s young Chiron being pummeled by the boys who called him "faggot" or a grown-up Chiron admitting to his estranged childhood friend Kevin, “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.”
That touch—a night Chiron and Kevin gave in to desire while sharing a blunt on the beach—wasn't just physical, but emotional. It was a touch that Chiron felt through his entire being. In another time and place, they could have been together, could have loved each other, maybe even saved each other from the lives they were expected to lead—lives of service, marred by drugs and marked by periods of incarceration.
It’s incredibly difficult to love and be loved as a black gay man in America—but it’s not impossible. And as Moonlight shows, realizing that love can be beautiful, even life-changing.
For that reason alone, it’s a minor miracle of a film, one that has come along at just the right moment but still leaves you wondering why it took so long.