(Warning: Minor spoilers for Moonlight)
By Leigh Monson
Moonlight is kind of a big deal. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It currently has a 99 on Metacritic and a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and is being hailed almost universally as one of the best films of 2016. So why is this important? Because in a cinematic and cultural climate that is dominated by white and straight voices, Moonlight is a character study of a black, gay(?) man. Not only that, it is a harsh examination of how toxic masculinity causes the closeting and oppression of non-straight identities, wrapped in a narrative that is as sweet and compelling as it is heartbreaking.
But first of all, some clarification on what I mean about “toxic masculinity.” Maleness and masculine identity are not in and of themselves socially harmful, but masculinity’s role in society has begun to diminish in prominence as patriarchal systems are weakened. (I know it doesn’t seem like that’s happening sometimes, but objective progress is being made in the span of decades and centuries.) “Toxic” masculinity is a series of social norms that seek to reinforce heterosexual male cultural dominance by executing emotional and physical violence against those who either actively resist or don’t live up to the standards of masculinity’s perceived superiority. Because gay men are often perceived to be rejecting masculinity by not engaging in the most culturally masculine act of heterosexual sex, many straight men will belittle or outright assault n on-straight men in order to reinforce their masculinity’s dominance over the queer man’s perceived femininity.
Moonlight demonstrates this as an early and perpetual presence in a poor, black person’s life, as some of the film’s first shots show our young protagonist, Chiron, being chased by boys his own age for being smaller and physically weaker. At approximately age ten, he’s a bit too young to be exploring his sexuality, but his performance of masculine gender is apparently not up to snuff as he asks a male role model what a faggot is and if he is one. Thankfully, this role model explains that that is a word designed specifically to make gay people feel bad about themselves and that there isn’t anything wrong with being gay, but the depressing thing is that it’s so easy to imagine that conversation going the other way.
It’s also abundantly clear that society at large—or at least the culture in which Chiron exists—does not share this open point of view as we flash forward to Chiron’s teenage years. He’s an awkward loner who is constantly bullied by the larger and more aggressive boys at his school, and his only solace is in his best friend Kevin. Being gay(?) or engaging in gay sex is never verbally expressed by either Chiron or Kevin, but there are wordless exchanges that act as coded flirtations to desires that they can’t express openly. It’s a safety issue; if either party turns out to be mistaken about the attraction they detect, they are effectively outed and will become the target of even more humiliation and violence. We see this in how Kevin constantly overcompensates by talking about his sexual exploits with women, though it should be noted that it’s never quite clear whether Kevin has sex with women primarily as a way to achieve “normalcy” or if he is in fact a bisexual. But when Chiron and Kevin finally do have a moment of sexual clarity between them, it is never spoken about, not before or after the act, even though it has changed their relationship and how they perceive themselves.
Skipping over some events that only further reinforce that point (after all, I don’t want to spoil the entire film), we reunite with Chiron as an adult drug dealer, carrying a gun as a means of self-protection in a world that has forced him to harden in order to survive. Sexually celibate for fear that his sexual identity would be revealed, Chiron once again seeks out Kevin after ten years apart, hoping to perhaps rediscover a part of himself that he long since buried. The extended climax of the film is the most gorgeous part, so I won’t go much into detail, but the interactions between Chiron and Kevin once again reflect their unwillingness to be open about their attraction, even though each of them is fully aware that the other knows their secret.
There are plenty of other dynamics at play in Chiron’s journey through Moonlight, pertaining to the intersectionalities of racial identity and socioeconomic status that I am not particularly qualified to comment on as a white person of some economic privilege. All the pieces of Chiron’s intersecting identities play a role in how he develops over the years, but the one I know the most about as a queer person assigned male at birth is how toxic masculinity forces the closeting of queer men in order to preserve a paradigm of straight male superiority. Moonlight demonstrates just how real violence is against the gay community, not just in a physically assaultive sense, but as a constant social reinforcement of being lesser and weaker. So few, if any, films achieve this level of clarity and perspective in highlighting the queer experience, and it is an exceedingly well written, directed, shot, and performed film to boot. If you haven’t yet, find a screen playing Moonlight and give this film the audience it deserves.
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