Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning coming-of-age drama taught me the truth about my blackness, queerness and vulnerability
I remember the first time I was ever called a “faggot.” I was 8 years old, in Science class, and I had absolutely no idea of its gravity or its intent. It wasn’t the last time I would be devastated by this slur. It’s just the simple reality of being a child marked by a difference that you’ve done nothing to bring about. Moonlight is a masterpiece that presents the reality of this proto-queerness: showing that our queer identities are often performed with visible cultural indicators long before we understand ourselves to be queer – visible to the world, but invisible to ourselves.
The pain that this causes for children navigating childhood and blackness and queerness is immense. To be a visibly queer black child is to very early on feel the pangs of isolation and victimhood. It means turning on your television and seeing no bodies that look and love and live and feel like you like you do. It is the life and unhappiness of the perpetual ‘other.’
To be a queer black boy in search of media representation is to learn to see your body as a primal, lustful, inhuman thing – to have the primary source of images of yourself be pornography that values and fetishises only the physical and the vulgar about your body. You are constantly denied tenderness and intimacy by representation, and then denied it in the world itself.
“To be a visibly queer black child is to very early on feel the pangs of isolation and victimhood. It means turning on your television and seeing no bodies that look and love and live and feel like you like you do”
In Moonlight, when Black groans, “You don’t even know!” through tears in the Principals’ office, I wept. It was cathartic. The film forced me to confront my perfectly rehearsed queer coming of age narrative; one that shrouds difficult origins in camp, brazen ceremony. I had a strong illusion that there was no struggle or self-denial, just a fully formed ultra confident queer, with all the words for his feelings and whole from the get-go. It forced me to confront the jagged edges of the story I’ve softened and to see the echoes of my own aborted intimacies mirrored back to me with an astonishing clarity. Watching that secluded kiss move the earth, before the harsh realities of moonlight faded into day, has been in every sense a transformative experience.
Never have I felt a story has been told with my truth at its core like this before. And not my soft, fantasy truths, nor my funny instagrammable, tweetable truths, but my uncomfortable, unspoken truths. That I was once Little – I am still Little – rendered low and small and sad by the violent struggles of living queerness in a black body, and a Catholicism that made me hate myself before I even knew myself.
Moonlight gave me the representation that I’ve begged and prayed for. In 111 minutes, it dislodged my entire facade. Black queer men as lovers; we are and always have been. Our bodies are as tender things as any; we like to be held too. I remembered the 8 year old ‘faggot’ me; the 16 year old never-kissed-a-boy-me. They are Little, and they are Black, and they are Chiron. In many ways Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin Mccraney’s gift to me has been not only remembering my vulnerable self but celebrating and remembering my own humanity.
It seems banal and obvious to say that we live in trying times. To be a queer person of colour is to live in perpetual fear and rage; to see our brothers and sisters being murdered in the streets. If art so reflects the times, and if it indeed has this so celebrated ability to heal and to humanise, then to have Moonlight beatified with the highest artistic honors in the land – to have the Academy recognise the value of exhuming our bodies and our stories, and to recognise the beauty and humanity of queer black boys and their love and touch and intimacy, signals that maybe a kinder world is on the horizon, and that years from now a little queer black boy will be a little less lonely, having access to a canon that tells him he can love and be loved. Maybe the moral arc of the universe is long, perhaps it bends in the Moonlight.