Basking in the Afterglow: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’

Laura Hackshaw

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Artwork by Maia Walcott

Moonlight has been an unprecedented and much needed piece of art which transcends the basic categories and labels that accompany the ideals of it simply being a unique ‘independent’ movie or at its most reductive, a movie about what it is like to be a young, black, gay boy becoming a man. Moonlight is about running through doors with your eyes closed not knowing how to find your way to the other side. It is about the fear, the panic, the discomfort and the frustration of having to come to terms with your own identity when your identity itself is based on societies preconceptions and expectations of who you should be, how you should talk, walk and who you should love – all before understanding how to first love yourself. It is profound because it transforms and challenges common ideologies surrounding black male-hood; black male tenderness and affection, the redemptive power of mentors, music and community and how these all shape the people we become. 

Not only is it outstanding because director Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, writer of the original screenplay and film adaptation, are delicate with words and bold on action. They also allow the actors to tell audiences a story through the simplicity of pauses, silences and raw emotion. It is pivotal to note here that the work of Jenkins and McCraney is utterly radical. Since when do we get the pleasure of seeing our stories (because you do not have to be a gay, black man to feel Moonlight) told on the big screen? To delight in the sounds of our music mingled in with the echoes of classical compositions which play out often during scenes involving some kind of internal chaos occurring inside of Chiron’s mind and world which conflict with his external experience of the world he is inhabiting? Genius decisions like Jenkins’ choice to dub the speech of the characters out of sync with the words that are being physically heard by the audience also act as a way to disorientate the viewer in the same way the characters themselves are being disoriented. Being bombarded with emotion or drowned out by the sound of the own mental playlist. Jenkins and McCraney, the two people who bought this vision of work to life, both derive from marginalized backgrounds, lending to the quality of this movie that keeps an authenticity of the black experience throughout. There is no guess work or clumsy editing of ill-fitting cultural references into scenes where the storyline does not call for it, in perhaps the way an ‘outsider’, a white heterosexual woman for instance, would be giving us her interpretation of what the struggles of Chiron and those characters around him appear to be through her lens if they had written the screenplay. 

McCraney grew up in the impoverished area of Liberty City, Miami during the 80’s and 90’s when cocaine rocked Miami and many other inner cities in America. Subsequently the crack era ate chunks out of family life across many black households. Mothers had succumbed to the cheap and accessible chaos of crack on their streets and  fathers were being locked up under a cloak of the systemically racist War on Drugs movement. The Presidential era of Reagan and the Rico Laws that followed, left black and Hispanic men being given three times the sentencing time of their white male counterparts under the illusion that crack (the same exact drug as cocaine, simply formed differently through a cooking process) was more dangerous than what the white middle class men and women were consuming.

Families were torn apart forever and both McCraney and Jenkins fell victim in the downsweep. Their mothers were both drug addicts and they both had to deal with the harsh reality of being left to figure out much of their young lives for themselves. We see this depicted in the movie as protagonist Chiron, is thrust into our world running away from bullies and into an abandoned slop house as he tries to evade the beating he would receive from his peers for being different. Throughout the course of Moonlight, we can see the toll that it takes on Chiron’s mother who at first is working and seems to have it together for the most part, but who slowly begins to slacken. We, thus, no longer wonder why Chiron is left to his own devices for long periods after school to wander or sit in silence at home while his mother sleeps, scrambles to find money for her addiction and, as he grows into a young teenage man, continually emotionally and mentally abuses him in order to get her own way and avoid looking at the mess she has made of herself and her son’s life. 

What is beautiful about this is rough shakiness, the truth and sincerity behind these scenes. It is such a critical part of the movie’s larger story because it highlights an ugly side of growing up poor and black, having to deal with the day to day struggle of living in a one parent household and the role black boys often have to play as a result of not having a father in the home. When do we ever see films or shows address this? The last time I remember really seeing this was when I recently watched Season 4 of The Wire and the character Michael similarly deals with a drug addicted mother who puts her drugs and the man she claims to love before her children. Michael, being the oldest brother feels determined to provide money, food and security for his younger brother. He becomes a man way before he should have to and, thus, ends up doing too much emotional and physical labor in order to keep a roof over their heads and prevent his mother from getting them evicted. Michael’s mother also becomes abusive when she cannot get money off of him to support her habit. The parallel is striking when it comes to Chiron when his mother also berates him until she gets money to get the drugs she wants. His school and personal life suffer as a result of the dysfunction going on in his home and the genuine confusion he finds himself facing about his sexual identity.

Crossing into the realms of sexuality, love, race, class and economic circumstances, we should first be clear about the ramifications of these issues when it comes to being a black boy/man in this society who is homosexual and dealing with a world which stereotypes him as ‘other. At the same time, it demands black men and black boys to grow into a role which sees them as the hypermasculine, aggressive, loud, overbearing, rampantly sexual, easily offended and predatory antagonist ready to explode at any given moment. 

For reference, we need look no further, historically speaking, than the elements of slavery. The strongest slaves were interbred in order to create a “buck/super slave/negro”. During times when men were being sold at human auction, the highest bids went to those who were physically bigger and stronger. Parallels we may even find today if we look closely at trades and organizations such as the NFL or NBA where in exchange for a contract the performative optics of hyper-black masculinity, owners make more money than they could ever spend and viewers get to cheer on the “buck,” providing their entertainment. Once boxed into these categories of the big and bad black man, it is very hard to be seen as existing outside of this monolith. Hence why many gay athletes keep their orientation to themselves.

During the late 19th century and  onwards, lynching helped to further perpetuate the white panic that black men were nothing more than violent and animalistic less than mortal beings who preyed on white women sexually. If we examine today’s society, the same white panic is still there – it has only changed form. The execution of black bodies, particularly the systemic condemning of black men to life sentences for non-violent or supposedly rehabitable offences in the United States alone as well as the killing of black men at the hands of police both in the UK and the US has wiped out whole generations of black brothers, fathers and grandfathers, 

Considering this context, it is easy to understand that the way in which black people move through life in the western world specifically is dictated largely by our understanding of what is being portrayed and perceived of us, and not who we actually are. In many African and Caribbean households, whether American or British, the topic or even idea of homosexuality is met with total disdain. It is likened to everything that is feminine and female deriving, and anything feminine is seen as naturally weaker, emotionally volatile and even, for some, simply a choice that is repugnant and reprehensible.

Moonlight is not so much brave as it is necessary. The time has come when it is necessary to show platonic and romantic love being shared between black men on screen. It is a reality that can no longer be hidden behind hushed tones and guilty double lives, or harassment and death sentences in some countries. It is a wake-up call to our communities and closed minds. It is careful as a film not to thrust homosexuality onto its audiences like a cheap perfume which can be over-used and rinsed out then re-sold again. There is a refinery to the loving and affectionate stares and quiet contemplation between Chiron and his love interest Kevin. Their love is unsure and unspoken for the most part because that is really the nature of queer black and brown love. It is not always on steady ground because it is not always certain whose land it stands on.

About the writer:

Laura is a writer in her mid-twenties of Black-British/Caribbean descent, who has been born and bred in London. Her work deals with nuances of injustice in everyday life, her writing seeks to find balance and truth and to explore the voices of those who so often get silenced. Laura has written for a number of publications including Sula Collective and The Body Narratives, as well as creating original documentaries. You can find her on Instagram @lhackshaw, where she is most active.

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