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Humanizing Without Victimizing: The Relevance of Moonlight By Esther Adema

Moonlight[1] was the surprise film hit during the 2016/2017 awards season: a tiny independent coming of age story about Chiron, a young gay black man, struggling with his masculinity and sexuality. In response to all the accolades and praise, reviewer Camilla Long at the Sunday Times reacted in what can only be described as bitter tones:

“The received wisdom on Moonlight…is that it is ‘necessary’ and ‘important’. It is an ‘urgent’ and ‘relevant’ examination of forbidden attraction…Only, relevant to whom? Certainly not the audience. Most will be straight, white, middle class. Nor is it particularly ‘urgent’: the story has been told countless times, against countless backdrops.”[2]

Long has already been thoroughly skewered for her comments, which apparently assume that queer people of color don’t find their way to the local cinema, or that the only love story worth repeating is one that features white heterosexuals.

Long’s comments conveniently invite us to delve into what does make this film relevant and necessary. Moonlight upends a number of narrative tropes related to queer characters as well as to characters of color. Both queer people and people of color are often victimized in narratives, and queer people of color, in this logic, are thus doubly doomed. We are invited to pity characters who are subjected to discrimination and inhumane treatment, but we aren’t always invited to relate to them in a different way. What Moonlight does, and what makes it so relevant and necessary, is that it humanizes its characters without victimizing them.

Bury Your Gays

One of the most persistent tropes in relation to queer representation remains the “bury your gays” trope, in which one or more queer characters end up dead before the end of the film, or in the case of a TV show, before the end of a season. Think of films like Brokeback Mountain, where Jack becomes the victim of a lethal gay-bashing attack, or Philadelphia, where Tom Hanks’ gay character lives just long enough to teach Denzel Washington’s character that gays are perfectly normal people before dying of AIDS. In the realm of TV, 2016 was a particularly gruesome year for queer women, as 25 lesbian or bisexual female characters were killed off on a variety of TV shows, out of a total number of 133 lesbian or bisexual female characters.[3] The pervasiveness of portraying queerness as inevitably leading to death, whether through violence, disease, or suicide, presents a bleak future for queer youth, who often have trouble envisioning a future for themselves.[4]

Moonlight 1

By the end of Moonlight, Chiron and Kevin are very much alive and what’s more, the film ends on a distinctly hopeful note. There is no definitive declaration of love or a happily ever after, but the final shot of Chiron and Kevin’s embrace – mirroring their sexual encounter on the beach – indicates that Chiron’s feelings are not one-sided. More importantly, by leaving things up in the air, the film forces us to imagine a future for them, whatever that future may be. It is the exact opposite of the foreclosure of futures to which queer characters are so often subjected.

Refusing Stereotypes

A common trope in the representation of African Americans is to depict them as suffering from a lack of agency, whether through slavery or other forms of racism, or to be involved with drugs, whether as users or dealers. Part of the controversy surrounding #OscarsSoWhite wasn’t just that there is a lack of three-dimensional black characters, or that black actors are frequently snubbed during awards seasons – though these are major factors – the controversy also pointed towards the tendency to only award those roles that turn African Americans into hapless victims of their circumstances or to stereotypes, such as slaves or maids. Lupita Nyong’o’s character in 12 Years a Slave becomes eligible to win an Oscar, while David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is overlooked. The Help can be showered in nominations and wins, while Straight Outta Compton barely gets a nod.[5]

Moonlight doesn’t entirely break with this tradition: Chiron’s mother Paula is a drug addict, his mentor Juan is a drug dealer, and Chiron himself ends up dealing. Still, the film takes great pains to establish that this is not all they are. Juan first and foremost offers a support system for Chiron, teaching him acceptance regardless of his sexuality. From what we can tell, Juan doesn’t deal drug out of some destructive desire or out of a desire to become obscenely wealthy. By foregoing an explanation of a tragic past that must have led to Juan’s dealing, Moonlight withholds judgment and expects us to do the same. As Mahershala Ali, who portrays Juan, explained when comparing the portrayal of drug dealers to that of white collar criminals:

“If you see what happens in these communities…dealing drugs is an opportunity to take care of yourself and to take care of your family. It doesn’t mean that you’re a villain though. It doesn’t mean that you’re ill-intended as you are selling drugs. It’s a means to an end…The same respect has to be shown to these characters who have something in their lives that should not be celebrated but they’re still full people, right?”[6]

Juan dealing drugs is not something to be proud of, but it also shouldn’t be used as an excuse to portray him as a villain, when there could be a whole host of reasons for turning to dealing.

Moonlight 2

Similarly, Paula, Chiron’s mother, while a drug addict, cannot be accurately captured in any singular term. Yes, she is an addict and she is abusive towards Chiron, but again, it does not come from a place of malice. This does not excuse all of her actions, and she does not expect to be excused from them, either, as she tells Chiron later in life, “You ain’t gotta love me, but you gon’ know that I love you.”[7] There’s an understanding that she’s done damage that is not easily repairable, but by showing that understanding, she also shows she is more than an abusive and addicted single mother. She is trying.

Finally, Chiron quite literally fights back against his bullies. After getting beaten up at the forced hands of Kevin and refusing to identify his attackers to the school administration, Chiron hits the main instigator with a chair. This episode is a precursor for the hardened exterior we see in Chiron in the third part of the film, when he has turned to dealing in a rather explicit imitation of Juan, having adopted not just his profession, but also his gold grills. While Chiron is not living an ideal life, he can hardly be called a victim. He has suffered, without a doubt, but he is not without agency. He may not have full control over his life, but he has made a life for himself, imperfect though it may be.

Moonlight 3

In the end, Juan, Paula, and Chiron are all three-dimensional characters and the audience is not invited to pity them, but simply to feel with them. Moonlight does not appeal to a universally vague sense of what it means to be human, lumping everyone in the same broad category, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender. Every character is specifically black and Chiron is specifically black and queer. Perhaps because Moonlight is an unapologetically black, queer film, Long found it difficult to empathize with these characters. Moonlight challenges us to understand a world that may not be intimately familiar to the “straight, white, middle class” audience Long mentioned, but that is exactly where its strength lies. Given that so many African American characters are stereotypes or agency-less victims, this film’s refusal of those stereotypes is, in fact, important and relevant. The film does not bother to inform us of Juan’s or Paula’s pasts through heavy-handed expositionary dialogue or flashbacks. Instead we are shown that people like them exist, and they deserve to be seen as whole human beings, even though they make mistakes.

Whiteness in LGBTQ+ Communities

Chiron’s story cannot be neatly dissected into black and gay components: his life is an amalgamation and inseparable entanglement of the two. His life must therefore be viewed through an intersectional lens, meaning that it should not be considered based on separate identity markers such as queer or black. Sexuality and race constantly collide to shape struggles that cannot be grasped by considering race or sexuality alone.[8] As a result, those collisions must be taken into account.

When discussing the relevance of this movie, we should therefore not forget the intermingled racial and sexual aspects that shape Chiron’s life, as well as the lives of queer people of color in general. Race does not disappear in discussions of homophobia or LGBTQ+ rights; rather, race is an integral part of the LGBTQ+ rights movements, as its aims are largely focused on the needs and complaints of white gay men.[9] The LGBTQ+ community, as a result, has become largely associated with whiteness, while people of color are disregarded or ignored.This also means that whiteness remains unmarked as the unexamined norm within the LGBTQ+ community, turning queer people of color into the Other wherever they go.[10]

Aside from this undercurrent running through the LGBTQ+ community, there is more blatant racism to be found as well. When confronted with charges of racism, white people within the community are likely to turn the conversation to homophobia within African American communities.[11] The underlying assumption here is that homophobia is typical of communities of color, particular African American and Muslim communities, while white people are inherently more progressive. It also serves to erase the fact that queer people of color exist. After all, if homophobia becomes synonymous with people of color, and being queer becomes synonymous with being white, where does that leave queer people of color?[12] This mechanism is further compounded by the fact that gay rights movements have a habit of adopting Civil Rights rhetoric and of comparing racism to homophobia, as if the two are mutually exclusive.[13]

In short, the existence of queer people of color is often erased and therefore, their representation matters and is in fact urgent. Stories of people like Chiron are not common within larger narratives about queer people and telling them challenges notions of what it means to be queer. Furthermore, a character like Juan challenges notions of homophobic black people. When Chiron asks him what a faggot is, Juan responds by saying “a faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad…you could be gay, but don’t let nobody call you a faggot.”[14] His response shows not only an acceptance of gay people, but also of the harm that slurs like faggot can do, and teaches Chiron the basis for self-acceptance.

Moonlight 4

Moonlight shows us that queerness and blackness are not mutually exclusive, nor are people of color inherently homophobic. Moreover, by only having speaking roles for people of color, Moonlight rejects the white norm in its entirety. It is not concerned with appeasing white audiences; it is only concerned with telling a story that is true to a queer black kid growing up on the streets of Miami.

 In the end, Moonlight offers a distinctly different narrative than we are usually offered. Just by virtue of making a queer black boy the subject of its story, it already stands out from the norm. In contrast to many other portrayals, both Chiron and Kevin make it to the end of the movie and they come together at the end, allowing the audience to imagine a future for them, and by extension, for queer people of color. On top of that, Moonlight resists easy categorization of black characters, who each struggle with various aspects of life, but do not become merely pitiable victims or stereotypes. To appreciate Moonlight, audiences must let go of the usual portrayals of blackness and queerness. The relevance of Moonlight, then,lies in its ability to humanize its subjects not through assimilation to the norm of heterosexual whiteness, but by challenging heterosexual and white audiences to empathize with frequently dehumanized subjects and, more importantly, in its rejection of narrative tropes and societal norms that allows queer black people to see themselves and their experiences represented.

Works Cited

[1]Moonlight. Dir. Barry Jenkins. Perf. Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. A24, 2016. Film.

[2] Long, Camilla. “Film Review: Moonlight and Hidden Figures.” Thetimes.co.uk. Times Newspapers Limited, 2017. Web.https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/film-review-moonlight-and-hidden-figures-fxj5rf7qq

[3]“Where We Are on TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report on LGBTQ Inclusion, ‘16-‘17.” GLAAD, 2017. p. 13.

[4]Jung, Gretchen. “But We Still End Up Dead: Effects of Mainstream Hollywood Film on Queer Identity Development.” MA thesis. California State University, Sacramento, 2011. p. 134.

[5]Boykin, Keith. “Commentary: The Oscars Are So White That…” bet.com. Bet, 2015. Web. http://www.bet.com/news/national/2015/01/16/commentary-the-oscars-are-so-white-that.html

[6]“Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch Panel at Hamptons Film Festival (Full Video).” Variety.com. Variety Media, 2017. Web. https://variety.com/t/10-actors-to-watch/

[7]Moonlight.

[8] Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991). 1241-1299. p. 1242.

[9] Teunis, Niels. “Sexual Objectification and the Construction of Whiteness in the Gay Male Community.” Culture, Health, and Sexuality 9.3 (2007): 263-75. p. 264.

[10] Carbado, Devon W. “Colorblind Intersectionality.” Signs 38.4 (2013): 811-45. p. 823.

[11] Ibid, p. 266.

[12] Haritaworn, Jim, Tamsila Tauqir, and Esra Erdem. “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse on ‘The War on Terror.’” In: Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality. Adi Kuntsman & Esperanza Miyake (eds.). York: Raw Nerve Books, 2009. 71-95. p. 72-4.

[13] “Colorblind Intersectionality.” p. 827-8.

[14]Moonlight.