Seeing Black Male Humanity: Why ‘Moonlight’ Impacted Me As An Afro-Latina
Watching Moonlight at a family-owned movie theater in New Jersey, I was in the company of my longest friend. She and I – now adults – had found new space to rebuild with each other after spending much of our youth fighting. Together we wanted to support the film, feeling tasked with the responsibility to sponsor a story of such narrative bravery. We’re both passionate about our cultures, the men and women we share it with, and how the world perceives us in spite of it. The two of us often gravitate toward the underdog, almost always connecting with the proverbial “come up”—because we done came up. Not to mention, we’re also attracted to actors Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes who play Juan and Chiron, respectively. With our own coming-of-age story behind us and many other serendipitous reasons propelling us forward, my longest comrade and I sat in the dark theater surrounded by people from all walks of life.
My first sexual experience was with a homosexual guy in high school. I had fallen for a boy who was struggling with sexuality and identity, while trying to love me simultaneously. He was skinny, dark and popular, and was always the center of attention. He grew up in a religious household and brought the church wherever he went. He’d often quote the Bible, too, using his signature preacher’s voice: “In the name of Jesus! I rebuke the devil!” He was in the marching band and part of the gospel choir, traveling to different churches across Tampa to perform. He was the first boy to touch me, to sing me praises and even inspire me. I was in denial and didn’t want to accept what my intuition was telling me about him. Rumors started to circulate about who his new partner was—another boy who was out. When he started to ignore me, I knew it was over. He had arrived at a point in which he could no longer hide from himself or the rest of the world. Years later, while in college, I received a letter from him: a confession and an apology.
When Moonlight was over, I immediately thought of him.
The tone of black masculine vulnerability is set from the very first scene. We watch Juan park and emerge from a blue car before he confidently walks toward another man standing at the sidewalk. Toking on a cigarette, Juan, who plays a drug dealer, arrives just as a customer and apparent drug addict is attempting to negotiate a loan. All the while, the camera is moving in circles, a reminder that there is always something happening in the backdrop. A co-dealer, who addresses Juan as “sir” and thanks him for “the opportunity.” Juan briefly asks his newly appointed employee about his mother, letting the young man know she is in his prayers. They communicate with few words and more with eye contact and body language. Much of the film moves in this cautious way, allowing the audience to be a witness of the humanity in relationships between black men.
My father, who is from Haiti, didn’t express himself much to me growing up. He was a provider, and the line between adult and child was not to be crossed. He was the most colorful when with his brothers. Now that I am an adult, out in the world and taking care of myself, he has evolved into someone wanting to share things with me. There is more of an interest in who I am now versus when I was a child. Although he doesn’t share the same narrative of the characters in Moonlight, the film is a poignant reminder of the tenderness my father now exercises with me.
Shortly after being introduced to Juan, enters a cute, shy and dark-skinned Chiron who must deal with being bullied everyday and going home to a mother who is almost always high (Naomi Harris as Paula). For some reason, Juan feels inclined to take him in as his own, house him from time to time, and serve as an image of influence. We don’t learn much of Juan’s past (just that he’s from Cuba), so there is no informing why Juan found interest in Chiron. All we know is that a man and a little boy carve out a space for each other, becoming the father-son duo they never had. Soon, we meet the various men surrounding Chiron’s life, whose interactions play pivotal roles in how he transitions into a man.
Terrel (Patrick Decile), for example, is a high school bully and arguably the least likable character. He appears only for the bad things, and is always angrily looking to cause mayhem while forcing others to join him. Chiron is an easy target because he isn’t confrontational and only looks to go home unscathed. By the time we meet Terrel, we’ve developed a soft spot for Chiron, wanting him to be and feel loved. Apprehension develops towards Terrel and I wished for him to hurry up and disappear.
Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is the amiable, yet complicated cool kid who gets the girls because he talks and walks a good game. In fact, he’s so unbothered by his peers that he doesn’t mind sitting alone at lunch. He befriends Chiron, still maintaining his swagger in the open. The interactions we go on to witness between Kevin and Chiron are youthful and good-natured. In one scene, for instance, Kevin instigates locker room talk after getting caught in the staircase having sex with a girl. “Why she gotta go ahead givin’ a n**ga compliments and sh*t?” But then we are with them again one night at the beach, where they are soft with each other, eyes locked and embracing longer than they should. It is the first time we experience their intimacy. We see it again: two black men communicating with body language that speaks louder than words.
When Kevin betrays Chiron on school grounds at the hands of Terrel’s peer pressure, my heart shattered. I was later relieved when Chiron sought out his revenge. Even later, I was excited to see that Chiron – still a loner – grew into an aesthetically beautiful man. It was frustrating, however, to learn that his prior circumstances had eventually forced Chiron to choose a life of trapping.
It’s in the third act of the film where Kevin re-emerges, also fully-grown.
Men who better communicate with body language do not do well on the phone, so watching Kevin call to speak with Chiron for the first time in years was alluring. I found myself wanting to put words in their mouths—just tell Kevin you love him already! Chiron later takes a nine-hour drive from Atlanta to Miami to see Kevin in person.
And that vulnerable tango between them begins again: tender eye contact, soft smirks, more body language.
We learn that Kevin has a son by a woman he is no longer seeing. He’s chosen a simpler life, working as a cook at a local diner after spending time behind bars. He is happy—content. I begin to wonder what their lives would have looked like had they chosen each other, instead.
There aren’t many women in the film. Early on, we meet Juan’s significant other, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Juxtaposed with Chiron’s mother (Naomi Harris as Paula), the two present themselves as the good and bad of feminine energy. Their respective characters either give or take away, with Teresa always appearing to be the one who can better love and nurture Chiron. Paula, on the other hand, is only shown to us at her worst, being verbally and emotionally abusive.
My mother, who is from Puerto Rico, sacrificed her dreams for others her entire life. Today, she has all the right ideas but lacks the focus and ambition to fulfill them. Like Chiron, my mother is the source of much of my pain and anger. But she is also the cause of my happiness and ambition. I remember her better days, when she was always center of attention, her friendliness attracting men, young and old. When she left my dad and downsized our life, I was angry at her most of the time for living the kind of life she did. I didn’t understand at nine why she was partying and drinking all the time. Of course, she didn’t feel like she owed me an explanation. She didn’t know then that she’d begin a new life, in a new state, to sacrifice for others once more. Only this time she was giving her all to her religion.
My mother’s struggle was nowhere near Paula’s, but both women gave up pieces of themselves chasing a light at the end of the tunnel. The thing about staring at light for too long is that it’ll burn your eyes.
It’s no secret that the creators of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, built on personal accounts to tell a story that would allow us to observe a specific kind of human interaction. It was moving, and more, reminiscing of the people I’ve experienced life with from my youth onward. I was coincidentally watching it with someone from my past, who spilled into my present, and will optimistically be a part of my future. It reminded me of the first boy I loved, who hasn’t served a purpose in my life for more than 13 years. Before I knew it, I was overwhelmed with a sense of knowing that everything that happens in our life is connected.
When my dear friend and I exited the theater, we walked out in sheer awe. Not only did we boast about the artistry and beauty of Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes, we felt overjoyed and privileged to have watched a film for and by black men that was filled with such emotion. (Shouts to Joi McMillon, the first black woman editor to receive an Oscar nomination). We arrived at my apartment, bottles of wine in tow, still impressed with the weight of the film. As we went on and on about it all, we lit candles and played music. We even called our sister-friend, the link that completes our tribe, to further unpack all that we were feeling in that moment.
Moonlight gave me permission to intimately connect with others in more ways than one. —Bianca Salvant