“Who is a faggot? Am I a faggot?” These are perhaps the most innocently heartbreaking questions any boy on his journey of self-discovery could ask. It is the plight of Little, the young African-American male protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama Moonlight (2016), who we witness grapple with bullying, poverty, a dysfunctional family, self-identity, and his sexuality in the rough Liberty City neighbourhood of Miami. His story is told in three chapters: his pre-pubescent years, as Little; his teenage years, as Chiron; his adult years, as Black. He is a fictional representation largely based on the lived experiences of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, the latter of whom wrote the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue in 2003 from which Moonlight the film would emerge over a decade later. By sharing their stories primarily through Little, Chiron, and Black, both Jenkins and McCraney present a deeply personal and non-judgemental piece of art, which is already gaining accolades such as the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture in Drama and is now poised for the upcoming Academy Awards.
For every Little that had to confront bullies at school because of their “difference,” Moonlight may re-open old wounds but possibilities for closure. And for those same Littles that currently be, Moonlight opens up a space for improving their condition. It is not that Jenkins laces the film with preachy messages or moral lessons; he, instead, plainly highlights the human condition, something Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham of The New York Times observe as uncommon in films of black male representation. When we meet Little, (played by Alex R. Hibbert) in the opening scene hiding from his bullies in an abandoned building, we are led to empathise with him but not entirely pitifully as Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) soon finds him and becomes somewhat of a father figure for him. Though the bullying worsens when we meet Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders) and culminates into a final vengeful act on Chiron’s part, he is still not presented as a helpless victim, for we later witness Black (played by Trevante Rhodes), as a more stable albeit still afflicted persona. To this extent, he is a survivor. Instead of instructing us on what to do or how to handle the problem of bullying in schools, Jenkins simply shows us Chiron’s human reaction without judging him and subtly urges hope and new beginnings by fast-forwarding to his more decent adult life.
For every Little, Chiron, Black that has ever had trouble with their sense of self, notions of masculinity and their sexuality, or still do, it is okay, and you are normal, constantly growing and changing. This is what Jenkins seems to insinuate by defying the typical melodramatic representations of the disadvantaged gay male. Of course, Chiron has all the odds against him, enough to commit suicide, but what he does instead is suppress all his angst and worries, which Sanders brilliantly captures in his consistently tense ― borderline angry ― facial expressions. Here is a young man who does not even know how to express what he is feeling yet finds gratification in what is undoubtedly the film’s most provocative scene – a moment of guilty sexual pleasure with his best male friend, Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome), on a night by the seaside under the moonlight. It does not stupefy him that the act might be a confirmation that he is gay; he smiles instead because he is marvelled, and this is what will make the film most uncomfortable for more orthodox viewers. Similarly, Kevin shows no sign of regret, self-hate, or shame. They reunite as adults, talk about it and embrace each other romantically just the same. And this is what is beautiful about Jenkins’ masterpiece. In a way, it tells every Little, Chiron, Black that there is a Kevin somewhere out there for him – that black male best friends can be lovers, too. Twisted as it may seem, art does not judge but express truth.
For every Little or Chiron that has ever grown up in a poor neighbourhood with a crack-addict mother and absent father, or currently lives in this situation, Moonlight will subtly tell you that you are loved and are worthy of love. It was during Chiron’s most turbulent moments as a child that he found a “new family,” when Juan and his girlfriend intercepted his life for the better. Though we might malign Chiron’s mother, Paula (played by Naomie Harris), we cannot totally hate her. Hers is another struggle, another story all by itself. She is not just a neglectful mother but also a victim of her circumstance, and crack cocaine ― even though it ruins her ― is the most immediate and convenient way she finds to deal with her reality of raising a black gay male son on her own. She is portrayed as a character with a heart as we see her come full circle and reconcile with Chiron in the end, in a scene that is perhaps one of the most touching in the film, when they hug each other crying, Paula confessing her failure as a mother in a bid for forgiveness. Chiron forgives her, and this is what seems to be the most important thing Jenkins is trying to show us, that without dwelling too much on the past, no matter how much it hurts, and forgiving our aggressors, we liberate ourselves, and liberation is what their tears symbolise. Though Chiron ends up being a drug dealer himself – a potent reflection of how much the society shapes the individual – he is at least in a better place than he was. All is not grey in Jenkin’s vision, and it is for other Littles, Chirons, Blacks to parallel their own vision accordingly.
A. O. Scott, co-chief critic of The New York Times, brings attention to the timeliness of Moonlight insofar that the film “dwells on the dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies, on the existential and physical matter of black lives.” In this context, Little, Chiron, Black is African-American but he resonates most potently with all little boys and men of the African diaspora who in one way or another can identify with the issues he faces. Such is the power of film, that when one sees himself or a version of himself represented on screen he begins to feel like he does not exist within a vacuum, that his struggles and experiences are even more valid and relevant in the context of race, and that his story is important to be told, heard and talked about. Often, gay-themed films with white or other race protagonists alienate the black male viewer, for experiences inevitably vary by race and society regardless of common threads. With Chiron, the deep personal and non-judgemental authenticity with which he is fashioned, conveyed to and received by the black male viewer is a well-appreciated token. This is the decade for the marginalized, for every Little, Chiron, or Black. No doubt, Moonlight makes a humble yet grand gesture in the right direction for canonizing the black gay male experience.