The title Moonlight sounds romantic and, yes, gay people deserve to have their passions recognized, but there’s a huge difference between validation and exoticizing. Writer-director Barry Jenkins dives so deeply into this film’s exoticizing tsunami that he also turns black males—America’s all-purpose fear-and-lust fetish—into equally useless exotica.
Jenkins’ hero comes from a stage play by Terrell Alvin McCraney (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), using a theatrical conceit that divides the character into three acts, three stages of victimhood.
Little (Alex R. Hibbert) is a schoolboy brutalized by bullies. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a hip-hop era teen whose crush on a sexually undeclared classmate leads to disaster. Black (Trevante Rhodes) is a tough-looking ex-con still longing for love. This concept might have made sense if the film was about three different males but the idea that hunched-over, introspective Little and the still-shy, inarticulate Chiron could evolve into a celibate criminal bad-ass simply pushes all the condescending buttons. This archetypal Black Gay Male remains an enigma so that people can project their pity, fear, and lust onto him.
And sure enough, Moonlight has become the new Precious, the vision of black pathos that adds emphasis on gay-bashing so that viewers can feel good about how politically-correct and sentimental they are, too.
I dare say that gays and viewers of color should respond more critically.
Jenkins attaches his story of adolescent woes to the social problem of racism. As a political movie, Moonlight is pointless but Jenkins adds black eroticism to the John Hughes teen movie genre—and this is the film’s one, truly gay advancement.
Think about it: The entire history of Hollywood movies has ignored black male sensuality—acknowledging it in passing, if at all. Handsome actors Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Edwards, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey rarely became matinee-idols and, recently, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson both portray African-American males similarly—always angry and one-dimensional. But Mahershala Ali (as Juan, the possibly bisexual drug dealer who mentors Little) and Rhodes who portrays adult Black embody the first fully sensual black male movie characters since the 1930s films of Paul Robeson (who gay British scholar Richard Dyer explicated as a sex symbol in his essential book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society).
Ali and Rhodes have overwhelming screen presence—they could become Hollywood’s first officially gay pin-ups (Jim Brown and Fred Williamson were unofficial gay icons). Jenkins photographs them with sensual contours, recalling music video director Matt Mahurin’s eccentric exoticizing feature MugShot (1996). But despite sexy, intimidating façades, these characterizations remain opaque. The men never develop into recognizable people: Juan is as obscure as a comic book superhero’s alter ego and Black, with his prison-thug musculature and gold fronts, is simply a type—more closeted and sexually discreet than prison brothers in the Frank Ocean era need to be. While this flips precepts about black gay masculinity, its “secret” is not liberating but pathetic. When Little asks Juan “Am I a faggot?” it doesn’t pierce gay consciousness like the self-awareness expressed in Terence Davies, Andre Techine and Julian Hernandez films.
Even the name “Black” is unacceptable. It exploits the same stereotypical racial limits that African American males (gay, straight or trans) still suffer. In the coda where two ex-cons share these victim stereotypes, Jenkins criminalizes all gay black men for their social history and inability to be real with each other. Patrik-Ian Polk’s black gay comedy The Skinny provided a snap-queen counterpoint to this maudlin attitude. Jenkins’ notion of pitiable romance and pitiable queerness ruins Moonlight.