I’m not sure anymore
Just how it happened before
The places that I knew
Were sunny and blue
I can feel it deep inside
This black nigga’s pride
I have no fear when I say
And I say it every day:
Every nigga is a star
Every nigga is a star
Who will deny that you and I and every nigga is a star?
Moonlight opens with the rich and soulful strains of the Jamaican soul singer, Boris Gardner’s R&B classic, “Every Nigga is a Star” as Juan, a young man, slowly pulls up in a sky-blue Cadillac to a derelict apartment building in Miami. He’s checking on his small part of the city’s drug trade when he sees a young boy being chased by a group of kids. He later finds the boy hiding from his tormentors in an abandoned apartment building turned crack house a few blocks away. Thus begins an unlikely relationship between Juan, a local drug dealer, and Chiron, a young black boy growing up in the housing projects of Liberty City in Miami, Florida. The film, which is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, tells Chiron’s story by examining his struggles to define his sexuality, the abuse he encounters in his surroundings, and his painful search for love and connection with others.
Because this is a film that is primarily about relationships –Chiron’s relationships with his mother, who descends into crack addiction from the film’s beginning and is redeemed by its end; Juan, who becomes a complex father figure to Chiron and later dies; and Kevin, a childhood friend with whom he shares his first sexual experience. But perhaps the most important relationship in the film is Chiron’s relationship with himself, which is explored in three chapters – Little, Chiron, and Black — that each mark critical shifts in Chiron’s sense of self and his relationships to the people in his life and the places in which he lives.
Visually, the film’s cinematography and art direction make Moonlight unequivocally one of the best films in the history of U.S. cinema. The film’s director, Barry Jenkins, represents the lush and brutal landscapes of south Florida with an eye to their beauty and the stark inequalities of race and class that have shaped the formation of Miami as a cosmopolitan city of immigrants where wealth and poverty exist in uncomfortable proximity. He highlights the multiple stories that live in this this landscape by centering the Atlantic Ocean as an ancestral geography that defines the black experience in the West from the transatlantic slave trade to the formation of the African Diaspora to contemporary patterns of immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean. But it is his work with light and black skin that is the most compelling part of the film’s cinematography. Under Jenkin’s watchful eye the landscapes of south Florida resonate with an intense vibrancy; black bodies are luminous, their varied complexions rich, warm, and sensuous. Rarely are poor black people, particularly black men, represented with such beauty and dignity in mainstream Hollywood films.
As someone with deep family roots in south Florida, the setting and the characters felt both familiar and familial. Leaving the theatre after watching Moonlight, I found myself thinking about black men – all the black men I have ever loved; black men on street corners pushing weight and talking shit; black men hustling and trying to survive. The characters reminded me of the black men I grew up with– my grandfathers, my father, my brother, the cousins who revolved in and out of the criminal justice system in a dangerous and draining game of musical chairs. The classmates who finished high school (or didn’t) and went on to become fathers. Some of them found their way to college or the military while others wound up in prison and cemeteries. The characters reminded me of Philando Castile, shot down in front of his partner and child; they reminded me of Eric Garner struggling to breathe and who, I am told, was once a gardener for the city of New York who planted flowers and saplings in the city’s park system. The characters in the film, particularly Juan and Chiron, remind me of the men I grew up with — strong, tough, clever men who painstakingly shielded their interior lives through carefully curated practices of emotional inscrutability and physical invulnerability. 
In Moonlight the choreography of the black male body in a dangerous landscape is carefully captured and made visible: the cultivation of the body as fortress, the wariness that lives in the eyes and shoulders, the clenched jaw, the broad back drawn tight anticipating the blow that may come – unexpectedly – at any moment. Jenkins, powerfully captures these feelings of tension and fear through the film’s camera work. Many scenes begin or end with tight, close-up camera shots from behind that leave Chiron’s head, neck and shoulders vulnerable. These vulnerable angles give the viewer the sensation of both observing Chiron but feeling as though we are also walking in his shoes and being followed, too, perhaps by someone who does not mean Chiron (or us) well.
The first time I watched the film in the theater with friends, I was shocked at how often I tensed up in these scenes and how often I feared that something awful would happen to Chiron. Whether it is Chiron as Little standing at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, teenage Chiron walking cautiously to the apartment he shares with his mother in a housing project, or Chiron as Black walking cautiously into a diner as he reconnects with his childhood friend/sweetheart, Kevin, the fear that this black male body is in constant danger is a recurring theme throughout the film.
It is this anticipatory fear that pervaded the film that I want to reflect on here. Specifically, I am interested in how we, as educators, might use Moonlight to think about the kinds of fear and permissible violence that animate normative discourses surrounding the black male body and inform the performance and articulation of invulnerable black masculinity that black men have historically developed in response to these controlling images of black manhood in U.S. popular culture. I teach a graduate seminar, Gender and Sexual Politics in the African Diaspora, and in this course, I work with students to examine how gender and sexuality function as critical sites in the construction of commonsense narratives of racial difference.
The course begins with an examination of the colonial origins of these gendered and sexualized narratives of the black body. We examine the extensive work that Black feminist scholars including Hortense Spillers, Patricia Hill Collins, Jennifer Morgan, and Dionne Brand have done analyzing the construction of the Black body as captive body, the articulation of racialized meaning that continues to mark the Black body as a site of captivity, the vexed racial ontologies these processes produce, and how people of African descent in the West contend with these processes of meaning making. The Trinidadian-Canadian poet Dionne Brand argues, ““In many senses the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora…By regulated I mean that there are specific societal functions which it is put to, quite outside its own agency” (37). Moonlight is a useful teaching tool for thinking about the vexed body politics of black masculinity and how black men negotiate the contradictory uses to which this body is put to in the broader society.
Moonlight tells many stories. It is a queer coming-of-age story that lovingly recounts a young black man’s painful and difficult journey into manhood. It is a story about a drug dealer who becomes an unlikely father to a child desperately in need of care and family. It is a love story between two men who, despite considerable odds, hold onto each other in a time and place where their love seems impossible. Moonlight’s central intervention in the visual landscape is, of course, the fact that it provides a much needed representation of the complexities of queer black sexuality that is too often overlooked in films that examine the experience of the black urban poor who live outside of normative scripts of sexuality, gender performance, and kinship. This is an important and necessary intervention that needs to be at the center of any theoretical and pedagogical engagement with this film.
Beyond that, however, the story at the heart of Moonlight seems to me to be an especially thoughtful and gentle exploration of the ontological experience of lovelessness and alienation in the lives of poor black men. It is a meditation on the beauty and terrible vulnerability of black male bodies and on the existential and physical matter of black lives. In my courses, I challenge my students to apply the insights of feminist and queer theory to examine the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class as they apply to social discourses about black men and masculinity. Moonlight provides an important pedagogical tool for examining black men’s structural and affective experiences of being perceived by the broader society as a particularly racialized object of fear. In that way, the film resonates with the insights of racial theorists such as Frantz Fanon who was among the first thinkers to critically examine the black man as “phobic object.”
In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon specifically calls into question black masculinity as a stable category and argues that under white supremacy the idea of a black man is itself something of a fiction: “At the risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers, I will say that the black is not a man” (3). For Fanon, the answer seems to lie in the ways that white supremacy undermines black men’s ability to perform the normative roles and functions of masculine power that white men claim for themselves. In so doing he demonstrates the fragility of masculinity even as he also seems to mourn black men’s inability to successfully embody it. Black men’s masculinity is defined as a wound inflicted by a Western heteropatriachal white supremacist social order that will not share the spoils of conquest equally with all of its sons.
This dispossession is a psychic violence that is enacted at the level of the body. This is demonstrated in the now classic scene of wounded black masculinity in Black Skin, White Masks, in which Fanon (as both author and autobiographical subject) confronts the specter of colonial racialization that renders him an object of fear. He speaks of being shattered by the gaze of the colonizer as embodied in the statement “Look, a Negro!” His internal sense of self is irreparably damaged by this external reading of his black body. Fanon writes “My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning in that white winter day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly.” The deeply traumatizing effects of this experience are palpable in Fanon’s work and it shapes his understanding of whiteness/the colonizer as an encompassing structure that overdetermines Black people’s lives and identity formation. Fanon’s work speaks to the masking strategies that colonized (male) subjects develop to cope with this trauma.
These impositions have profound implications for how black men think about and experience their own bodies – even in the absence of the colonizer. There are no white characters in Moonlight but white supremacy is palpable in the film. It is present in the racialized social organization of space in Miami that herds and contains black, brown, and immigrant communities into racially segregated communities on the periphery of islands of white wealth and privilege. Its presence is reflected in the existence of the drug economy that operates in these spaces and that turn these communities into hypercriminalized sites of state surveillance and policing. For me, it reveals that the long shadow that white supremacy casts over black social life is a central part of the masks that black men must create to live in a society that fears their very existence.
Rinaldo Walcott argues that “The masks black men wear are many and varied and might be understood as congruent with the difficult history of the agency or lack thereof of black masculine self-fashioning that is autonomous and wholly self-interested.” Moonlight pulls back the many masks of black masculinity and exposes the psychic and affective wounds that these masks produce. In so doing, it skillfully uncovers what Walcott refers to as the “drag of black masculinity.” The lesson that Moonlight drives home is the sad truth that the experience of moving through the world as a phobic object produces a deep sense of bodily alienation and loneliness. The drag of black masculinity requires that black men internalize this social script in order to secure what is an always already tenuous survival. In other words, turning oneself into a fortress against the rage and violence of the world may provide a limited measure of safety or security butit also requires that black men invest in harmful notions of invulnerable masculinity that limit their ability to realize themselves as human beings. We desperately need to love and be loved yet black men are too often denied (and made to deny themselves) its most basic and essential gestures – touch, affection, care.
This is made painfully clear in many of the film’s most emotionally dense and compelling scenes. Chiron is a deeply vulnerable character who learns early on that his vulnerability, which is what makes him such an empathetic character, is also what makes him susceptible to the violence of others. It is this knowledge that leads Chiron to take on the performance of invulnerable black masculinity that shatters in the film’s final chapter, Black. In Moonlight’s final scene, Chiron is forced to confront the pain of masking when he reunites with his childhood friend and first love, Kevin. Chiron return to Kevin wearing a mask – gold fronts on his teeth, a Cadillac similar to the one that Juan drove in the film’s first chapter, a chiseled body that acts as both a weapon and a deterrent, and a hypermasculine affect that marks him as invulnerable. But Chiron cannot hide the deep desire for love and connection that lives inside of him. Indeed, the scene is thick with repressed longing as Kevin, standing over a stove preparing water for tea, asks Chiron, “Who is you man?”
Chiron: Who me?
Kevin: Yeah, nigga, you. I’m saying man, them fronts, that car. Who is you, Chiron?
Chiron: I’m me. I ain’t trying to be nothing else.
Kevin: Oh, okay, so you hard now?
Chiron: I ain’t say that.
Kevin: Well, then, what?
Kevin: When we got to Atlanta, I started over. Built myself from the ground up. Built myself hard.
Chiron puts on the mask in order to survive – and it works, to a degree. But Kevin refuses to accept Chiron’s mask at face-value because he has worn masks of his own and done the painful, difficult work of shedding them. As characters, Kevin and Chiron are two sides of the same coin except that Kevin has long since decided to release the burden of normative masculinity and try instead to figure out another – perhaps more honest — way to be in the world.
When Chiron admits to Kevin in the kitchen, “You the only man that’s ever touched me. You’re the only one. I haven’t really touched anyone since,” their first sexual encounter as teenagers at the same beach where Juan lovingly taught Chiron how to swim, the painful weight of his confession sits between them and the audience and we finally understand: normative masculinity hurts, it is soul-crushing, it makes it impossible to be fully human. Holding on to the mask of impenetrable, invulnerable masculinity is, in many ways, a logical response to social experiences that teach black men that they are undeserving of the most basic gestures of human connection. But the mask does other kinds of work as well, which Walcott notes when he argues that “The role of the mask might be so primary to black manhood that it obscures and covers over how black men have been able to articulate their selfhood both consciously and unconsciously to themselves and to others.”
Walcott’s theorization of the drag of black masculinity is part of a longer genealogy of queer of color critique that since the 1980s has interrogated the heternormative values that underwrite the performance of black masculinity. His work echoes the interventions of the late radical black gay poet, Essex Hemphill, whose wok continually returns to the confining and painful limits of social discourses that produce narrative of black masculinity as damaged, deficient, excessive, and endangered. It is a social performance that he longed throughout his life to be free of. In “Heavy Breathing,” he writes,
I am eager to burn
this threadbare masculinity
this perpetual black suit
I have outgrown.
I have always found Hemphill’s description of normative black masculinity as an uncomfortable, ill-fitting suit a provocative and suggestive metaphor. It speaks to the ways that black masculinity is, borrowing from Judith Butler, a gendered performance whose coherence and stability is achieved only through the repetition of legible gestures that mark one as a normative masculine subject. Further it speaks to the ways that this performance requires the sublimation of gestures, affects, and experiences that contradict the script of inviolable, invulnerable black men. It demands a suppression of black men’s complex, interior lives and instead compels them to reproduce the very narratives that deny them their full humanity and necessitated the performance in the first place.
Walcott and Hemphill both provide useful tools for thinking about the structural and affective experience of being a racialized object of fear. Beyond that diagnostic function, however, their respective analyses are also generative and offer critical insights into reimagining modes of masculinity that do not reproduce the drag of the black male body held captive by the violent dictates of heteronormativity. Rather than focusing on black men as wounded, deficient, emasculated or feminized racial subjects — which remains the prevailing, commonsense read on black masculinity among white conservatives and black nationalists alike – Walcott and Hemphill’s work rethinks black masculinity beyond the patriarchal white father by asking different kinds of questions: What would it mean for the black male body to become a body for itself? What are the ways that black men attempt to lay claim to their bodies as sites of pleasure, connection, and possibility? What are the ways that, borrowing from Walcott, black men have been able to articulate alternative scripts of selfhood? Can such a body exist in a culture that is so deeply invested in black masculinity as phobic object?
Moonlight suggests that more liberatory modes of masculinity possible. There are no guarantees that the attempt will be successful. Indeed at the film’s end all we are left with is a shot of Kevin and Chiron seated on the edge of Kevin’s bed, holding each other silently. We are left with nothing but questions: What will become of these two men? Will they stay together? What will become of Chiron? We cannot know the outcome. But we do get the sense that there are other ways to be men in this world if we have the courage to create new models. Moonlight artfully demonstrates that when black men take off the mask of normative masculinity and release the burden of invulnerability they can know love, know connection, and be made whole in their bodies.
Recommended Reading + Films
Brand, Dionne. Map to the Door of No Return.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Fanon, Frantz. 2008 . Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove/Atlantic.
Ferguson, Roderick A. 2004. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gordon, Edmund T. 1997. “Cultural Politics of Black Masculinity.” Transforming Anthropology 6 (1-2): 36-53. *
Hemphill, Essex, ed. 2000 . Selections from Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Hurt, Byron. 2011. Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes. 60 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmmecdRPQzI.
Marriot, David. 2000. On Black Men. New York: Columbia University.
Riggs, Marlon. 1989. Tongues Untied. 55 min.
.1995. Black Is…Black Ain’t. 87 min.
Spillers, Hortense. 2003. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. 203-29.
Walcott, Rinaldo. 2009. Reconstructing Manhood; or, The Drag of Black Masculinity. Small Axe 13(1): 75-89.
Wallace, Maurice O. 2002. “On Dangers Seen and Unseen: Identity Politics and the Burden of Black Male Specularity.” In Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775-1995. Durham: Duke University Press. 19-52.*
 One could compellingly argue that the film’s female characters are not afforded the same level of emotional range and complexity as the male characters, particularly Chiron’s mother whose descent into drug addiction seems to reify stereotypical narratives of bad black motherhood that are only marginally addressed at the film’s conclusion. I do not take this issue up in the body of this essay although I would certainly do so in the context of teaching the film.