I don’t believe in perfect pieces of art. I don’t know that perfection in art is necessary. There are, however, rare moments when something that has been created, a story told, an image crafted, have the effect of pulling together so many pieces of the human condition, and the time in which they are made, and visceral beauty, that maybe perfection has been achieved.
I don’t know that Moonlight is a perfect film, nor do I believe that it needs to be. But considering its narrative, and its execution of that narrative, and how it perfectly and with subtle excellence melds the characters on screen, specifically Chiron, and all of the characters off-screen, it is something like perfection in this moment.
It is beautiful, and worrying. And maybe the most meaningful film any of us has seen in the last several years. Precisely because of all of those characters in the ether, floating above those long silences and riding passenger, unseen, with all of the characters and vistas in every shot.
As important, to my eye, were the roles examined and played by 1) Misguided masculinity, with toxic fallout 2) The perpetual unsafe spaces created for Black boys to learn self-love and 3) The real and stark differences between sex, sexuality, intimacy, and partnership. Each of these were real characters, present and urgent. There were others, as this film from opening to close remained meaningful and textured.
Briefly the film covers three developmental periods in the life of a Black boy. Early childhood, his teenage development, and young adulthood. All three stages are explored as they relate to his personal, family, and sexual identity and development. Few answers are offered. For that. I am grateful.
Grateful, because it created a disturbance, a kind of dissonance for me personally, a rattling of sensibilities which are left to address. We were not meant to go away simply settled or entertained. We, as men, and to drill further, as Black men, are tasked with not only making sense of what we have just seen, but relating it, and speaking to it, as it no doubt speaks to us. These conversations, for those having them, have been proving to be sometimes difficult, as many of the best growth conversations are.
Once the public became aware of Moonlight, and once it was assumed that the film was in some way about homosexuality, there were many men, many Black men, who were going to avoid the film. It stirred something to even consider what this work of fiction might unearth. It might feel too much unlike a work of fiction.
What I realized coming away is that some of the anxiety was warranted, but not in response to any themes of sexuality. No. That being spread as the film’s only core is irresponsible. Deeper and more fortified for the men and boys in the Black community was this very naked and true exploration of the exploration of how we develop self-love, learn to fear our developing differences, how very limited our opportunities toward joy in this society may be, and how truly fragmented, poorly defined and damaging our conception of masculinity really is.
What I drew, from the very earliest scene in the film, is one of the lessons that we as boys learned, even without being able to put it into words. That lesson being that masculinity and maleness looks, feels, and breathes in a particular way. It is defined in its polarity from femininity, is meant to exercise strength, and—in true pack creature fashion—hunts out weakness within its ranks. None of us wanted to be found out to be less than ideally masculine even then, for fear of retribution, or shaming the face of our fathers, or being ostracized, or…
These lessons come at us in unwritten rules, in toys being removed, in play with other children—the messages aren’t particularly subtle. The punishments are consistent and harsh. The transmission is a clear one, suggesting that there is a way to be “male” and there is little room for exploration of that concept. It simply is.
What does that mean for us as boys? What has it done to our understanding of ourselves as men? And fathers? And lovers? And even as I say lovers, I realize that many of you reading this naturally considered wives and significant others. But that is a part of the issue explored in this film, that our sexual identities are chiseled and pruned and abused and pushed into some sort of acceptable shape from our earliest possible moments, and that restricted emotional and psychological movement has adverse impact on other parts of our lives.
It leads us to fear who we, collectively, are and what we represent. There are true psychic and physical threats to the safety and joy of Black boys, and some degree of vigilance has always been necessary. Within a society where the great Western form of rugged strength and individualism was celebrated, and Black males were allowed few, if any, opportunities to develop and engage their emotions among themselves, and with their families, indeed, there simply has never been any impetus placed on the exploration of our culture of love, and love language and self-love. It remains unsettling to consider these. The topic, its concepts, and its meanings, unsafe.
That remains no justification to refusing the practice that comes with engaging a film like Moonlight, one which confidently and honestly starts this most difficult dialogue, and leaves many spaces for us, as boys who are now men, to engage.
The film makes several statements for us. As Black men, the path to self-love can be traumatic. We have very few moments of tenderness and connection, and even those may be stolen. Love is often meant to be private. Guard your vulnerable emotional self. A brother loving a brother is meant to be private. The film challenges us to see these themes, and how they develop and live with this person, and people, who struggle with what we have all been raised with, and what many of us feel.
I engaged in a talkback at the local theater when Moonlight was premiered, and found that while the audience was engaged and thoughtful, it was also mostly women. Women who were confident and intentional in having conversations about all of the themes they were confronted with in the film.
When I began asking other men and Black men about their thoughts on the film, or whether they had seen it, I was often being met with some version of “the gay film?” And some awkward conversation would ensue for several minutes filled with missives about one or more of us truly being open-minded, uncomfortable, not ready, or ill-equipped. Some suggested that Fences and Hidden Figures, both excellent as well, were safer ground.
I found myself challenging every Black man I know personally to consider seeing the film. Asking them to consider discussing it with me. The film serves as a ready entry point for conversations that we don’t feel free to have among ourselves. About ourselves. Our sexuality, love of one another, fear of one another, ways in which we are reared, brotherhood, and concept of our families is being defined for us outside of us. Largely because we simply do not engage. Even with art like this, which is for us.
As hard as it may be, due in part to our religious upbringings, or toxicity around what it means to be a boy or man, or ways in which we lack the language and vocabulary to express how we feel, or think, at the very least we can engage when others among are providing us with an opening. And that is what we have in Moonlight. A raucous opportunity to break open the idea of what our identities with and for one another, must be. Struggling through and past the shackles, now often self-imposed, that paint a picture of acceptable Black maleness as being only straight, strong, aggressive and emotionally stunted.
We have an opportunity to, with this film, to speak for ourselves. To expose ourselves to the discomfort and develop the resolve to further be ourselves. In all of that complexity and messiness, rather like being fully human.
Earth, Water, Sky: YESSSSSSSS!!!! 3 Men, 3 Adventures, 3 Stories. Now on The Good Men Project
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