Queering the Cool: A Review of Moonlight
By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Saturday, November 5, 2016.
I knew Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the follow-up to his 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, would provoke some discomfort. When it screened on Morehouse’s campus a few weeks before its official release, some students were thrilled it was going to be screened, but a number of others were downright reluctant to take advantage of the advanced screening. They viewed the trailer and to paraphrase one of the whispered responses that I got, decided, ‘No, no, that’s not really a film for me.” Translation: even a trailer that hinted at an interrogation of heterosexuality as a fundamental marker of street cred and ‘real’ black masculinity was unsettling.
Moonlight’s exploration of the relationship between violence, normative scripts of heterosexual masculinities and homophobia with a young black boy at its center make Moonlight a rare coming of age motion picture and rarer still in the coming of age in the hood dramas we’ve seen since the early 1990’s. Further, the queer gaze that informs the narrative offers something else entirely too rare though precious in contemporary film, a thoughtful representation of black male intimacy and vulnerability with each other.
Set primarily in Miami – a nod to the autobiographical nuances of the story – Jenkins translates the traumatic realities of his childhood into a haunting narrative aided by the moving cinematography of James Laxton and the poetic sensibility Jenkins infused into a screenplay that emerged out of a story by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. “Moonlight” is an apt symbolic signifier on the deceptive social posturing that accompanies the performance of accepted young black male identities in the inner city. The small cast rounds out with the three actors playing the main character in three different life stages from young Little to the adolescent Chiron and finally the grown up Black played respectively by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
House of Cards and Luke Cage veteran, the brilliant Mahershala Ali, continues his string of strong roles as Juan, a drug dealer, surrogate father to Little while Naomie Harris appears in a role we’ve never seen her in as Little’s/Chron/Black’s crackhead, abusive mother, Paula. Janelle Monae plays her polar opposite, a ideal maternal-surrogate mother to Little/Chiron, and his one complicated childhood friend and elusive love Kevin is played by Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland. Ali, who abruptly departs from the story through his death off screen and presumably due to his violent career, helps the narrative complicate a bit a role we’ve seen many times through his efforts to literally and figuratively feed Little both in body and affirmation of self-worth and self-identity despite the violent, contrary demands of the street that Little emulate dominant scripts of black masculinity. There is a big BUT though that undercuts it; Juan’s drugs feed Paula’s addiction.
Moonlight intends to dramatize the psychic brutality imposed on black boys and young black men who don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t try to model traditional constructions and social notions of who young black men growing up in the inner city are; Little/Chiron is mercilessly harassed and beaten by the cool ‘thugs’ [the bullies] at school and in the street for not being “tough” and for being a sissy, or more harshly in his own mother’s words, a “faggot.”
The crack head black mother is by now a pretty common representation of black motherhood in the inner city whether in ghettocentric black patriarchal dramas or films like the Blind Side and Losing Isaiah. Indeed, in the first, black mothers are either hardly present, peripheral figures (ex. Straight Outta Compton), self-sacrificing Big Mama saints or dominating, unsupportive or harsh figures who threaten to emasculate sons. It’s a reality that caused Harris to reject the role initially until Jenkins convinced her; the character was drawn from his actual family circumstances.
Still, the mother Jenkins creates in Moonlight is disappointingly typical since we primarily get one dimensional portrayals of black mothers or black women with addiction issues, especially poor and working class black women; at first sight Paula appears to be a working healthcare professional and single mother but she quickly morphs into a raging ‘loose’ or hypersexual woman, who disses her son for the men she brings home, and rags on her son for not being a 'real' and 'normal' brother. We do not get a glimpse of her story and worse because we don’t, and she mostly traumatizes her son for his perceived lack of correct manliness, she personifies the imagery of dysfunctional black mothering in the hood.
The other woman in the film, Juan's nurturing girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) functions as Paula’s opposite. When Ali brings the boy into their quiet home outside the projects, she immediately becomes the perfect surrogate mother, feeding him and gently prodding him to open up and then orienting herself to his silence. We never see her outside of this domestic space or learn a single thing about her.
Moonlight still admirably posits an interrogation of cultural investments in homophobia in order to cling to the false sense that heterosexuality defines an unquestioned authentic and ‘normal” black manliness, though that too, while hugely important and compelling, is limited. A bright film student of mine who viewed the film was left longing for a film for him, one that appeared to have a non-heterosexual gaze in mind. Jenkins’s treatment of sexual and emotional desire between the two friends in adolescence and adulthood is restrained; Little becomes Black, an adult man whose sexual life and self-expression are set on mute.
Does this treatment serve to ease the unusual narrative portrayal of black male to black male vulnerability and sexual desire for a heterosexual spectatorship that is resistant to it? I dare say it does. Maybe that framing can only be read as problematic if that was intended, since the film is not just attempting to dramatize a personal past experience of traumatic bullying due to being perceived as Other – gay and not modeling the street approved posturing of an authentic cool black masculinity – but to talkback to the bullies, and moreover to the heterosexist patriarchal cultural mores that breed psychic and physical violence. Moonlight may not fully realize its potential in this, but it certainly flashes brilliance and beauty in the effort.
Stephane Dunn is a writer and professor and the director of the Morehouse College Cinema, Television, & Emerging Media Studies Program (CTEMS). Her publications include the 2008 book Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois) and a number of articles in mediums such as Ebony.com, The Atlantic, The Root.com, Bright Lights Film journal, and others. Follow her on Twitter at twitter @DrStephaneDunn and www.stephanedunn.com.