Updated: Feb 5, 2021
By Krista Orejudos
Image retrieved from Twitter
Based on Travis Alvin McCraney's unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, director, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is an LGBT-themed independent that presents a new coming of age drama about a young man who grows up Black and gay in Miami slums. Released on October 21, 2016, the film had already received much praise from everyone, leading to many Academy Award nominations and wins. Without overblowing the typical Black American clichés so often used in film, Jenkins' focus on character development for Chiron, the protagonist, leaves the audience exploring omnipresent themes like identity, sexuality, family, love, lust, and above all, masculinity. Actors, Alex Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as Black, reflect inner conflicts when dealing with fluid masculinity as an African American man in the US. Consequently, the cultural hate for gay men among the Black community served as barriers for the protagonist to come out. As a result, toxic masculinity in African American communities, pressures young Black boys to act in certain ways that demonstrate their “manliness” because they embrace societal identity rather than forming their own.
With the movie segmented into three important chapters of his life, Little, Chiron, and Black, each chapter represents the protagonist’s ongoing struggles with masculinity and how it shapes his identity. By being born Black, his community conditions him to be a heterosexual “hard” man, so acting out of the standard makes him less of a man.
In Little, he is shown how to act like a real man; for example, Kevin tries to toughen up him to prove how Little isn’t soft. However, the scene where Little asked Juan if he was a faggot or not showed how Little knew something was “wrong” with him because he would be the only person getting bullied for his feminine mannerisms. In Chiron, he questions whether men are allowed to be vulnerable; for instance, when Kevin and Chiron, now teenagers, discuss emotional subjects like crying and sadness, Chiron feels comfort knowing that another man can be vulnerable too. Lastly, in Black, he decides to embody his deceased father figure, Juan, through mimicking the same drug dealing lifestyle since his need to exhibit his masculinity became his new identity.
Image retrieved from Beyond 50 Radio Show
Towards the end of the movie, Kevin asks Black if he’s “hard” now, and although he replies “yes”, Kevin can still see Little in him because, despite Black’s new appearance, he knows it’s only a façade to gain social acceptance. Moreover, the environment shown throughout the entire film was one that would never accept our protagonist unless he were to change into a man like Black.
Due to the lack of hegemonic masculine norms in African American men, they overcompensate by making their masculinity visible. In return, toxic masculinity ruins who they are because they're so focused on one aspect of their identity that they forget about their other traits. In the film, Chiron wasn’t the only character affected by this, Kevin and the other boys tended to overexert their dominance because they always had to one-up each other in terms of who was manlier. Likewise, physical traits consumed these boys’ identities and society labeled them as ignorant or less than because they were depicted as meatheads who compare their physical measurements instead of concentrating on more important things. Then the rough environment they’re placed in keeps conditioning them to fit the Black stereotype of being ghetto, urban, and poor since they can’t gain the same social mobility or life opportunities as normal children do. This is especially true when the audience sees Juan, a Black drug dealer cliché because the neighborhood was filled with violence, drugs, and addiction, therefore the boys are being influenced negatively to follow the same path as their role models. Moreover, these boys find it easier to conform to the norms than to go against the grain because they’re afraid of getting rejected for who they are.
Carceral masculinity, a type of toxic masculinity with a prison-like environment, is the reason why stereotypes of Black manhood in poor communities get passed on to each generation. Even though the film didn’t show any type of criminal justice institutions, the audience can already infer that the neighborhood was most likely on the outskirts of such buildings because the paranoia about cops raiding drug operations kept the characters on high alert. To add on, another inference that can be made is how most men living in this neighborhood were once imprisoned and released back into societal oppression. Furthermore, these horrible behaviors aren't stopped, and it fuels their dominating need for control. This connects to the scene where Paula gets angry at Juan for acting as Chiron’s surrogate dad who’s taught him life lessons about following your path because the life he’s chosen is dangerous and has ruined peoples’ lives, including hers. So, he is in no position to be acting like the good guy when he’s found his control through drug dealing as well as bringing truth to the Black stereotype of Black men always being up to no good. Boys like Chiron are observing criminalized lifestyles from men like Juan and it makes them feel hopeless knowing that their life will end up like the societal stereotype.
The film displayed how race barriers correlate to African American men’s need to always display their masculinity. Studies and experiments have shown that negative contributors such as poor social, economic, and health conditions explained why Black men view themselves as bad in society. The only way for Chiron to overcome these barriers was to consume who he truly is to embody another identity. Especially after seeing how Juan wields complete dominance, these boys are thinking that the only way to a “successful” life is to be like him because he’s the only role model they look up to, a drug lord.
Overall, Jenkins does not only deliver a groundbreaking film with a cast of all Black Americans, but he also provides an inside look at the pressures of toxic masculinity dealt by society and the African American community on poor Black boys. Jenkins relies on the performance of the cast to execute conflicting ideas of what it means to be a man and which identity they choose to embrace. Beginning with how the movie is structured, the three segments in our protagonist's life displays his struggles with fitting in masculinity to his identity. Just when he thinks he’s found an answer to all his questions, life challenges him to either be his own person or conform to the norms, and by doing the latter, he suffers from the consequences later in adulthood. While it would be easy to classify Moonlight as a movie about growing up with drug abuse, mass incarceration, and school violence, those are all misleading depictions of a movie that sheds light on a heartbreaking social issue faced by America today. Its moral complexities remind us that human connections are what form us all, so we must consider the impact we have on each other before recklessly acting as we please.
Written by writer Krista Orejudos