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‘Moonlight’ Captures the Complexities of Growing Up Gay and Black in America

The film, which sees release this Friday, navigates the intersection of two distinct experiences in ways most cinema hasn't.

Chiron, in a still from the trailer for "Moonlight"

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Throughout my life I've struggled with what it meant to be simultaneously black and gay. Though my racial and sexual identity weigh equally on my overall being, it's easy to see them as sometimes at odds with each other. In our society, both "blackness" and "gayness" have commonly been dealt with in monolithic terms, and I feel a constant pressure to pick one over the other.

When black men denounce one of the most prominent activists of the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement simply because he's openly gay, I struggle to see where I fit into the black community. But when white men mandate that "No Blacks" message them on dating apps, I struggle just as much to see where I fit into the gay community. I know that I live at the intersection of both identities, but sometimes it can feel like being black and gay is to live in between two mutually exclusive wholes.

It's for this reason that I was as scared as I was excited to see Moonlight, the second film by Barry Jenkins, who previously directed the critically acclaimed indie feature Medicine for Melancholy. It centers on Chiron, a gay black man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, and a variety of life circumstances specific to that experience: His mother is a crack addict, his father is absent, and he's forced to hide his sexuality throughout the course of the film for fear of his life. Even from the film's trailer, one could tell that many of those experiences would invite brutal violence against him, and it was promising to know that audiences would finally get a firsthand look at how not all gay lives are the same.

But as significant as it is to see a queer film that didn't focus on the quasi-privileged experiences of yet another white protagonist, I shuddered at the thought of what this movie could say about black culture as a whole and its connections with homophobia. In our current cultural climate, where innocent black men are being shot dead by police due to racialized assessments of how dangerous they might be, I knew how risky it could be to release a movie that depicted any black men as aggressive and violent.

But I also didn't see how a story like this could be told without being upfront about those harsh realities. For as important as I felt it was to curb the notion that all black men are inherently violent and aggressive, I felt it would be irresponsible to not look into those that are. Simply put, the potentially violent relationship that exists between gay black men and homophobic straight black men is central to understanding what it means to grow up as black and gay. It's not an enjoyable life.

And Moonlight confirms that. The film—told in three acts, documenting three different periods in the protagonist's life: his childhood, his adolescence and his adulthood—is utterly heartbreaking. When we first see Chiron, he's being chased through the street by young neighborhood boys, screaming "Get his gay ass!" Later, he gets stomped out to a bloody pulp by bullies during his lunch period. We see his own crack addicted mother taunt him to his face. Moonlight doesn't try to gloss over the severity of what it means to be gay "in the hood"—in fact, it firmly asserts that being gay in this Miami neighborhood means that you will be an outcast amongst your peers, that you will live in fear of walking by yourself, and will likely be bullied until you can somehow escape. These homophobic realities function as the emotional centerpiece of the movie.

But rather than let those realities overwhelm the script, Jenkins also uses Moonlight to point to an equally important fact: not everyone from the "hood" is bad. Poverty is not a monolith—there are levels to it, and Jenkins' trained eye draws out subtleties in the experience of his film's characters that render it much more vivid, tragic, and affecting than they might be otherwise. It's that ability to color those experiences in subtle shades that adds a much needed nuance to the marginalized existences being shown. Even if it is true that potentially violent homophobic attitudes are pervasive in black male culture, it's also true that this "culture" is not representative of everyone within it. Although Chiron's life is made undeniably hard by those around him, there are still some people—particularly men—willing to fight against those norms and accept him as a human being.

It's telling that the first character seen on screen is not Chiron, but the man who becomes near wholly responsible for shaping his sense of manhood and self. Juan—a buff drug dealer who commands deep respect from nearly all of his neighbors, a type of respect based less on money or intimidation than one's character—could easily have become a homophobic stereotype. But he becomes one of the only people in Chiron's life who loves him in spite of his budding sexuality.

In one scene, a young Chiron asks Juan, "What's a faggot?" Juan answers, "A 'faggot' is a word used to make gay people feel bad." When Chiron then asks if he is one, Juan assures the young boy, "You could be gay, but you don't gotta let people call you a faggot." It's a moment that works to dismantle the belief that all black men, particularly those from the inner city, are homophobic. Juan's role is one of Moonlight's most profound, as it shows the audience that just like anyone else, black men—even those that you might expect to be bad, like drug dealers—have the ability to be good people. Despite being seemingly entrenched in traditional notions of black masculinity, Juan saw a damaged boy that needed a father figure, and willfully decided to fill that role.

It is, of course, important to show the harsh realities of what it means to live at the intersection of being black and gay. People like us face very unique challenges that are frequently ignored in the wider conversation about what it means to live as a gay man. But even with that, those challenges shouldn't dominate the conversation in a way that perpetuates the false narrative that black people—and black men in particular—are inherently closed-minded and prone to violence. As Juan's character shows, there's much more to a man than where he's from or how he presents himself. It is possible to have a hard exterior with a caring heart.

By the film's third and final act, Chiron has matured into a reincarnation of Juan. After relocating to Atlanta, Chiron—who now goes by "Black"—got buff, started dealing drugs, and wearing grills. In an effort to explain the transformation, Chiron says, "I built myself from the ground up. I built myself hard." Of course, it's evident that the "hardness" he now embodies doesn't equate with the softness we saw when he was a child, one who was constantly bullied by his peers. But it's also this very tension between Chiron's inner and outer personas that reinforces the film's central idea: that we need to rethink how we categorize black men as a whole. After all, if the harmless Chiron can bench press and deal drugs too, is it ever fair to look at any member of a community and assume that you know everything about them?

Follow Michael Cuby on Twitter.