ANDERSON: Moonlight tackles intersectionality of sexuality
Opinions Column: A 'Popped' Culture
Last week I walked into what has been the saving grace for recent black films. “Moonlight” is a biopic drama about the tumultuous life of the director, Barry Jenkins, and how he navigates growing up in poverty alongside understanding his sexuality. The protagonist does not go by “Barry” in the film -- instead his mother, bullies and lovers all know him as Chiron.
Aside from the phenomenal cast starring Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali, and the great cinematography that guides the audience through an almost surrealist experience of a 1980s Miami, the film tackles the intersectionality of sexuality and what those dynamics look like through the lens of a poor, young black man.
The movie breaks itself into three sections titled “Little,” “Chiron” and “Black.” As each section transitions into the next, the main character grows older and we are able to follow his journey into manhood while discovering how unstable and complex the term “manhood” truly is.
In one of the first scenes, we are thrown into a high-speed chase. In this chase, however, the highway is a rundown Floridian neighborhood, the “cops” take the form of traditional masculinity manifesting itself in a gang of young homophobic bullies, and the perpetrator is our star, Chiron, a young, gay, black boy with nowhere to run.
The movie shows how uniquely hard it is for young black boys from lower-economic communities to come to terms with their sexuality. The first scene showcases that homosexual black men not only have to face the social consequences of coming out (or in this case being dragged out before even getting the chance to come out), but brutal physical consequences as well. This is not to say that black women do not face similar dangers, but there is definitely a greater taboo when it comes to black men.
We see this being played out in one of the most chilling scenes in which the young Chiron asks his neighbor, an older black man, what the word “faggot” means. This harrowing nature of the scene is partly increased due to the rarity of these types of interactions within communities of black men. Black men do not openly discuss sexuality because, sadly, black culture generally dictates that sexuality is stable, not fluid. In addition to that, a black man who is anything other than a straight black man is traditionally seen as less than and unworthy of the title of “a man.” This perspective creates a toxic environment that does not lend itself to comfortable conversation of homosexuality, gender and different forms of masculinity.
In her book, "We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity," author and scholar bell hooks explains the specific fragility that is the masculinity of black men and where it comes from. She argues that black men do not have room to express alternate versions of masculinity because the media does not provide them alternate images of how black men are “supposed” to behave and react to society. The media overwhelmingly displays black men as uncontrollable, dominating savages, who need to be dominated and imprisoned. She also says black men have historically accepted and embraced the white man’s definition of masculinity that was imposed upon them during slavery. The white definition of masculinity was deeply connected to the white definition of patriarchy and the notions that masculinity is performed through the subjugation of women, enacting physical violence on those who were weaker than you and seeming to be in control at all times.
White supremacist narratives reaching back to slavery have also categorized black men as less than human and therefore unable to experience a complexity of emotions such as fear, sympathy, love and pain. Not only should black boys not cry, black boys should not even know how to cry. This was a form of cognitive dissonance created by white supremacists in order to justify slavery and the harsh treatments of black men.
Flash forward to 2016, where "Moonlight" shows us on large screens across the nation, the result of the rigid restrictions that have historically been placed on black masculinity. Chiron is the victim of psychological and physical abuse from a school bully. His adolescent romantic partner is forced to publically betray him by beating him up in front of a crowd of peers out of fear of not being discovered as gay himself and getting publically shunned and abused as well. Chiron has no outlet that affords him the opportunity to productively and healthily discuss his sexuality and his emotions. This is the reason why, after being publically humiliated and abused, he seeks revenge through violence that sends him down a spiral incarceration, drugs and emotional-closed-off-ness.
To my black men, I urge us to be brave enough to engage in these types of discussions with each other. Have them not only in your homes, but in our fraternities and churches as well. There are a lot of mindsets and stigmas that we have to unlearn. We must unlearn them for the betterment of our future and of the future of the next generation of young black men with questions as well.
Michael Anderson is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in Africana studies and digital communication, information and media. His column, “A ‘Popped’ Culture,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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