On a frigid Canadian winter night in Toronto, my partner and I snuck away from a seriously hectic time in our lives to watch the movie Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, it is based on the unproduced theatre play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It is a phenomenal film. I need to see it again. I want to watch it again. I will be watching it again.
Most people who know me, or have read more than one piece on this space will know that the theme of intersectionality is my lens, sword, security blanket, and shield. Moonlight was a visually beautiful and textured story telling experience steeped in the intersectional identities of some refreshing characters that were neither caricature nor stereotype.
Like most art, what part of your soul Moonlight touches will differ from person to person. I walked into the theater knowing very little about this film, except that my social media bubble told me it was a phenomenal piece of black cinema. Also, Mahershala Ali is in it and I would happily watch that man do his taxes. I left the film feeling that someone had laid bare every one of my most intimate hopes, fears, insecurities and proudest parts of being a black man for the world to see. I believe in the premise that the world is a stage in which we are all performing in a one act play with a lot of improvisation. In my version of this play, the particular way in which I am performing my black masculinity costume was the part of my soul that Moonlight spoke to the most.
While reading about the film and its reviews, I was very happy to stumble upon a conversation about this film between and from the perspective of black people, some who identify as queer and some who don’t, but all based in Canada. Many thanks, fist bumps and hugs to Amanda Paris the host of Exhibitionists on CBC TV and the Playwright in Residence @CahootsTheatre for making this happen! The full dialogue is available on CBC Arts here Masculinity and ‘Moonlight’: Eight black men dissect Barry Jenkins’ momentous film
Participating in the original dialogue with Amanda Paris are Kimahli Powell (theatre director), Cameron Bailey (artistic director of TIFF), Matthew Progress (musician and multidisciplinary artist), LaLi Mohamed (writer, public speaker and self-described “non-profit geek”), RT (director and writer), Ty Harper (radio producer and co-founder of City on My Back), David Lewis Peart (writer, public speaker and placemaker) and Charles Officer (filmmaker).
After reading the dialogue, I thought I’d answer the same questions and invite you to do so as well. Below are the questions they responded to, with my own answers.
Every time I read a description of the film I feel dissatisfied. How would you describe Moonlight to someone who has not seen it?
Imagine that all of the most personal and hidden parts of your identity were placed in front of a camera and asked to pour out their innermost fears, joys, insecurities and questions. Moonlight is what happens when you weave that recording into a coherent story of one black boy’s journey through some of life’s major stages. The film is a rare glimpse at the tenderness and vulnerability that black men are typically taught and socialized to erase at all costs. Most importantly it tells this story without apologizing for, sanitizing or romanticizing the experience. If this movie were a song, it would be Nina Simone’s classic song Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
What do you find unique about the film?
It did not take any shortcuts in getting to the story. It would have been easy to tell the typical story of overcoming adversity and emerging victorious. Moonlight stayed with the story all the way to the end, even though at times I was rooting for some sort of fairy tale end to each part of the narrative. It was different to see a film stay disciplined to telling all these intersecting stories and hold them each accountable to being multidimensional, raw and believable.
The film explores the idea of masculinity as performance and how that performance is used as a form of survival. Did that make you think about the ways that you may or may not perform in the world?
Yes. I spent the next few weeks after watching the film teasing apart all the many instances in my life where my own performance of masculinity is part shield and part camouflage. My earliest recollection of this becoming a factor is when I arrived in North America as a teenager and trying to learn what it meant to be a black man and how that was different from being an African man. Looking back, I realize that a large part of my development as an adult has been learning which costume to wear depending on the audience and how to ensure that all of my performances are true slices of who I am. That last part has been the most difficult, and I have not always been good at it. In my case, it has not been a matter of survival. It has been about the need to create community and carve out a place of belonging in the midst of a very alienating environment. I guess one may say, that is survival. I have found that the less radical the difference between one version of my performance and the next, the more comfortable I have become in my own skin and the deeper my relationships have become.
Chiron (Source LA Times)
This movie features some of the most intimate moments I’ve ever seen between black men on the screen. How did these moments make you feel? Were there any scenes that tested your comfort levels and/or moments that hit you directly in the heart?
The most intimate moment in this film for me and the one that hit me the hardest was the scene in the Ocean when Juan is teaching Little to swim. I loved the powerful imagery of An older black man is standing with his feet planted in the vastness of the ocean teaching this black boy, a stranger, the life saving skill of swimming. This is the same ocean that was both a horrific voyage and grave for millions of their ancestors. In this same ocean Juan says some of the most powerful words in that film to Little.
Let your head rest in my hand.
Relax. I got you.
I promise. I won’t let you go.
Hey man, I got you.
There you go.
You in the middle of the world.”
The weight of this imagery hit me like a bag of bricks. It was incredible to see this on the screen. I know that there are many places in my life where relationships like this are the norm, but I am also painfully aware that my experience is not universal. I am here for you. I will protect you. I will be your support. I have been here before and you can learn from my experience. These are commitments that we all look for in one another and it is powerful when we find it. There is a moment in the scene when you see Little fully relax and let himself sink into the safety that Juan has created. That moment got to me. Right in the feels!
Swimming in the ocean. (Source New York Times Anatomy of a Scene)
However, I completely agree with David Lewis-Peart, who spoke about his apprehension in the Amanda Parris piece. I held my breath throughout this, and most scenes between these two characters. I kept expecting and fearing the moment something terribly inappropriate would happen between these two. I felt ashamed to recognize that I was distrustfully waiting for Juan to violate the beauty of this relationship. It took me so long to trust Juan, I know why it took so long and that knowledge hurts.
Several critics have mentioned the way Moonlight made them forget the absence of white people and consider blackness as the default, as the ordinary. What significance did the centering of blackness and the absence of whiteness have on you?
Growing up in southeastern Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, the absence of whiteness was so normal that I didn’t just forget it, I never really contemplated it in the first place. I occasionally considered the presence of whiteness with a shrug of the shoulders when I was around the handful of European expatriate or interracial families in my hometown. I had the privilege of forming the earliest parts of my identities in a context where my blackness was of little positive or negative significance in my day to day life.
Moonlight made me feel like I was back in that space watching people who look like and sound like me live life out loud. Films like this are significant because they remind us of the value of creating and protecting the spaces where marginalized people can tell their own stories, centering themselves as the entire subject and primary audience. This fosters the knowledge and confidence of self and community that makes it easier to build truly integrated community and national identities.
The experience(s) of being black in Canada are not the same as being black in the United States. Do you think this movie is an important one for black people to see in Canada? Why or why not?
Yes, this is an important movie for black people to see in Canada. This was not a revolutionary heroine narrative or a classic “us versus all of them” story where we could all leave the theatre reassured by a common sense of righteousness or indignation. This film compels us to have the conversations that we shy away from having as friends, brothers, partners, families, and a community. The most difficult thing I have done, and continue to do, in my life is to learn who I am and how to be that person. That has meant questioning and shaping my own views on my version of masculinity, sexuality, love, hope, fear, and the burning need to not be misunderstood. Doing this very personal work in a society that doesn’t always feel safe brings a lot of confusion and emotional scars. It also leads to some genuinely awesome moments of pure joy and accomplishment. The best way to heal the scars and share the joy is in the kinds of conversations that a film like Moonlight gives us permission to have with one another.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
First of all, Moonlight is a cinematic beauty. It is an absolutely beautiful film to watch and the use of shadow and color in very powerful ways frames this story very well. So on the surface, you will be happy to watch this good looking film. Secondly, this is precisely the type of story that very seldom gets told through Hollywood and audiences like myself have been looking for them for a while. On the surface, it is a simple story of black boy rites of passage journey and the experiences that shape the man that he becomes. Woven through this narrative are all the intersecting experiences, identities and expectations that make this the kind of multi-dimensional story that is typically, and painfully absent in narratives of black experiences in North America.
Go and see this film. Take someone with you, take many people with you and let’s talk about it.
Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. (14A). 111 minutes. Now playing at a theater near you. moonlight-movie.com