Masculinity and 'Moonlight': Eight black men dissect Barry Jenkins' momentous film
A dialogue with black male artists, writers and speakers on one of the year's most important cinematic moments
The first time I saw Barry Jenkins' new film Moonlight was at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September. I attended a press screening (first mistake) by myself (second mistake) after seeing two other powerful films earlier that day (third mistake). I was so emotionally drained that I had difficulty fully connecting to the film and felt uncomfortable in a theatre filled with non-black press who seemed determined to refrain from revealing any kind of connection to what was happening on screen.
Cut to this past weekend. The film opened for official release in Toronto, and I went to see it again. This time I watched it sitting next to my best friend in a theatre filled with people not afraid to be expressive and made sure that it was the only movie I watched that day. That second experience was richly moving and deeply inspiring.
I am in awe of Moonlight's ability to use cinema to reattribute value to stories that historically have been deemed unworthy of attention on the big screen. A coming of age story, it chronicles three periods in the life of Chiron, a young black male growing up in Miami's Liberty City neighbourhood. Each period is defined by key moments that shape Chiron's relationship to home, love, sexuality and gender identity.
The film — written and directed by Jenkins and based on the unproduced theatre play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney — is rightfully being lauded as one of the best films of the year, but as I scoured the numerous reviews, think-pieces and interviews on the internet, I realized that most of the writing about it has been done by non-black folks. Little room has been made for the thoughts and perspectives of black men (particularly black queer men) to discuss a film unequivocally about a black man. So this week, rather than providing my own review of the film, I have decided to open my column up for a dialogue with several black male artists, writers and speakers based in Canada — some of whom identify as queer and some of whom don't — to express their thoughts on Moonlight.
Participating in this dialogue are Kimahli Powell (theatre director), Cameron Bailey (artistic director of TIFF), Matthew Progress (musician and multidisciplinary artist), LaLi Mohamed (writer, public speaker and self-described "non-profit geek"), RT (director and writer), Ty Harper (radio producer and co-founder of City on My Back), David Lewis Peart (writer, public speaker and placemaker) and Charles Officer (filmmaker).
The differences and parallels in how these men experienced Moonlight, their insights into elements no critics have yet brought up and their thoughts on its impact make this dialogue richly fascinating and incredibly necessary. When I asked them if they liked Moonlight, almost everyone gave it an unequivocal thumbs up. Harper clarified that he gave it "one fist up" and RT declared it his favourite film of the year. However, Mohamed and Lewis-Peart were a little more considered in their feedback. Lewis-Peart appreciated the film but felt there were moments where the ball may have been dropped (more on that below) and Mohamed noted that "it's a terribly violent film, sometimes brushing against what might be considered a spectacle of black stereotypes."
You can find the rest of their responses below — and please note that there are considerable spoilers with regard to the film itself, so do try and make your way to a movie theatre before taking in their discussion.
Every time I read a description of the film I feel dissatisfied. How would you describe Moonlight to someone who has not seen it?
Kimahli Powell: I understand the dissatisfaction. It's the challenge of having white producers, marketing people and reviewers describe a transformative black film. And it's resulting in primarily white audiences, first at the TIFF and in my most recent viewing. I really hope more black people go out and see it. I would describe Moonlight as a black man's journey through life navigating his relationships with those closest to him, as he struggles with his sexuality.
Cameron Bailey: I'd say Moonlight is a secret whispered by a black man at three stages of his life about what it's like to want, to need and to love.
Matthew Progress: A beautifully artful, innovative, forward-thinking snapshot of black male intimacy and identity. It uses minimalism to create endless complexities, and becomes a perfect muse for the viewer to interrogate their own pre-existing ideas about the subject matter depicted. The cinematography, editing and colouring are so breathtaking it would be a treat to watch the complete film without audio.
LaLi Mohamed: Moonlight is a visual meditation that compels us to consider the everyday violence(s) that Chiron navigates and negotiates throughout his life. The film lays bare the corrupting and contaminating terrain of masculinity — its toxicities, its brutalities, its unrelenting banality. It certainly isn't a love story. It's a story of robbed innocence, of a trepid, almost smashed adolescence, of a barren adult life. In a world that would otherwise see a boy like [Chiron] disappear, he becomes a man that insists on carving out a life for himself. Your heart will stutter. Your spirit will be moved. Your pants may even swell.
The film lays bare the corrupting and contaminating terrain of masculinity — its toxicities, its brutalities, its unrelenting banality. It certainly isn't a love story. It's a story of robbed innocence, of a trepid, almost smashed adolescence, of a barren adult life.- LaLi Mohamed
What do you find unique about the film?
Kimahli Powell: When have we seen two black men kiss? Barry Jenkins directs this film with compassion and made so many ground breaking choices. Also important is [Mahershala] Ali's portrayal of Juan. We've seen the black drug dealer so many times [but] I can't recall a portrayal with so much sensitivity. So many of us black men do not have a father figure and the scene with Juan and Little in the water gave me so many feels.
Cameron Bailey: I'm a big believer in paying attention to the conditions of production, distribution and reception. With Moonlight, there's a lot that's new here. It's important to note that Barry Jenkins comes from a working class family, went to a state university instead of a private one and still managed to rise to a key position at the Telluride Film Festival, [and] then get Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner's Plan B production company on board. Most people who make feature films come from middle class or rich backgrounds. Barry rose on the strength of his talent and his personality. Also, the critical reaction has been inspiring. Most film critics in North America are straight, white, middle-class men. Taken as a group, their reviews tend to valourize that identity and marginalize most other experiences. Not with Moonlight. It's the best-reviewed film of the year in the US and Canada. To me that's a hopeful sign. The art of this film is at a high enough level to impress cinephiles and critics, who can see the traces of Robert Bresson or Terrence Malick, but it also speaks to those steeped in African diasporic cultures [that] see the traces of Isaac Julien, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison. Steve McQueen may be the only other filmmaker working right now who has won praise from both camps to the same degree.
The film explores the idea of masculinity as performance and how that performance is used as a form of survival. Did that make you think about the ways that you may or may not perform in the world?
RT: There are performance aspects to all societal living, [from] living in the inner city to climbing the ladder in a corporate culture. We all draw our own lines of how much or how little we perform throughout our lives. I think the beauty of what Moonlight did was [it] place[d] a magnifying glass on the journey of being a gay black male from the hood in America, where the perception of difference could mean your life. Interestingly, the film shows two extremes of performing — with Chiron, who doesn't know how to perform well in his environment, and then Kevin, who navigates those waters with more fluidity. This rich dichotomy between Kevin's bravado and Chiron's inhibition is the beating heart of the film.
David Lewis-Peart: Right after seeing the film I went and visited my local barber, and a conversation was struck about the film. I mentioned that what I took away from Moonlight was just how much I understood the main characters' choices. I mentioned that while I did not perform quite the same way as Chiron, that I, as a black man who happens to be queer, have adopted my own version of this cool pose in order to survive. I realized that very few of us black men are given the space to opt out of enacting some kind of pose or another in order to survive; survive the intra-community violence we experience, and the assaults from the outside world too; the daily anti-black encounters, the homophobia, the hyper-vigilante and hyper-masculine expectations. The implicit and explicit policing of our bodies and its very movements that most of us black men, both gay and straight, learn from jump, schooled by our own and by those outside our communities as well.
LaLi Mohamed: But did he survive? It was as if the depth and texture of his life was stolen by the insistence of homophobia and the mask of an almost suffocating masculinity. I think I'm lucky in many ways. I've never had use for masculinity. The kind of affection that I give and receive is rooted in the tender, fierce and femme love I received from my mother for most of my life.
I've never seen a feature film capture love between black men in such a holistic way.- Matthew Progress
This movie features some of the most intimate moments I've ever seen between black men on the screen. How did these moments make you feel? Were there any scenes that tested your comfort levels and/or moments that hit you directly in the heart?
Ty Harper: So many. But the one that still brings me close to tears is a very simple one: it's when Chiron is sitting in the bathtub, bubbles on his head, looking at the wall, alone. It's a very short scene. But that moment, to me, did so much to capture Chiron's loneliness in his pain.
Matthew Progress: I've never seen a feature film capture love between black men in such a holistic way. Tenderness, warmth, affection and most importantly vulnerability took centre stage with all the leading males in Moonlight. What made this so impactful for me was how Barry Jenkins was able to prioritize these traits in Chiron, Juan and Kevin, yet also realistically depict their complicity and participation in a stereotypically hyper-masculine environment. This really hit home for me and I truly felt understood as I watched these characters develop and share intimacy with each other.
David Lewis-Peart: What most surprised me during the film was just how uncomfortable and unaccustomed I was to observing an elder black man and a young black boy interact in [the] absence of any kind of violence, manipulation or intimidation. I found myself cautiously watching as their relationship unfolded and examining it for any signs of the inappropriate. I wondered how this father-figure could be so caring, so open, so supportive. Distrustful, I waited for a shoe to drop. But that in fact was what [the story] really pushed. The picturesque scene of the two on the water was beautiful, but it was a scene all about trust. [Juan] said to the little Chiron, "Whatever happens, I got you." That was big. I realized that the feeling of patiently waiting to be disappointed was exactly what Chiron was struggling with up until that scene. Can I trust this man? I was genuinely moved as I realized he, and I, could.
Several critics have mentioned the way Moonlight made them forget the absence of white people and consider blackness as the default, as the ordinary. What significance did the centering of blackness and the absence of whiteness have on you?
Matthew Progress: It's important for us as critical black creatives to craft stories (fictional or non) that include a majority or complete cast of black characters, but that normalize this level of representation to the extent that the content itself becomes the main focal point, rather than the social location of the characters. Moonlight so effectively accomplishes this by highlighting the individual complexities of its characters, consistently creating moments that shatter common black stereotypes, but that also ring true to our community in very general ways. To me, Barry Jenkins shines a bright spotlight on the individual humanity of his characters as a way of making a bold, albeit indirect, political statement.
RT: I'm black so my norm is the presence of blackness, my own, in my daily. Perhaps those critics are white and their lives are filled with whiteness. If the film can focus white audiences and critics on the journey of a human being then I'm all for it. I find that sad, but I'm for it. I do that every time I go see a film whether it's Spotlight, The Danish Girl or Schindler's List. There are no black people in those films, but the lack of blackness doesn't get in my way of connecting to them. One of the best things about this film for me is that it was about a black man in America and his journey of self-discovery, and it had nothing to do with his interaction with white people or white hatred. So much dramatic black cinema in America is about our peoples' interaction with whites as though we have no other worth or stories outside of that.
Ty Harper: Moonlight was a poignant reminder that most films that make it to the theatre either do not care about my interests or wellbeing, or put the comfort of white audiences over the interests and wellbeing of people that look like me. I watched this film three times. It's such an important piece of black film history.
LaLi Mohamed: Was whiteness really absent? I mean, who was bringing the crack-cocaine into that suburb of Miami?
Moonlight was a poignant reminder that most films that make it to the theatre either do not care about my interests or wellbeing, or put the comfort of white audiences over the interests and wellbeing of people that look like me.- Ty Harper
The experience(s) of being black in Canada are not the same as being black in the United States. Do you think this movie is an important one for black people to see in Canada? Why or why not?
Charles Officer: Our experiences collectively as black men in Canada, the United States and the entire planet for that matter is rooted in ancestry. I think that is the parallel that binds us. Physical borders have not silenced the systemic and racist perceptions of black men in most places we find ourselves — which is why I feel Moonlight is critical for black communities in Canada to see and embrace. The challenge of defining one's manhood as a black boy — within family, friends and society, defining our sexuality, spirituality and masculinity — is a psychological journey scarcely discussed, and the challenges are real as we navigate ourselves into adulthood. The film captures a story of one boy experiencing this; triumph and tribulation. He represented many of us. We need to see black men rendered as 3, even 4-dimensional beings. It is a blessing that such a film exists and offers such powerful illustrations for us to take in.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
David Lewis-Peart: I hands down appreciated this film. It was an amazing first attempt at bringing to the main stage the life of a queer black man. That said, there were places where the ball may have been dropped. I was a bit bothered that the choice was made to desexualize Chiron in his later life. Was that necessary for larger, heterosexual audiences to better receive him? I thought that [it was] a disservice. There are already too few images of black men who love (and have sex with) other men shown on screen. Too often queer black men are rendered sexless by way of over-stereotypical and comedic portrayals of "gayness" or are depicted as the secretive and predatory down-low characters struggling to love and accept themselves and their partners. Showing Chiron and Kevin as masculine, yet able to be vulnerable, intimate and sexual would have been a transgressive representation of gay blackness. My second contention had to do with the portrayal of Chiron's drug-addicted mother. The transition from the concerned, working parent to the angry and unstable drug abuser was a quick one, and didn't provide the audience with much back story. While recognizing that there are many women (and men) in those conditions, especially in deprived communities in the U.S, it still would have been helpful to see more nuance, particularly given that that caricature of black women failing as parents has been trotted out before.
Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. (14A). 111 minutes. Now playing at select theatres. moonlight-movie.com
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.