Identity and ‘Moonlight’

Jermaine_Fletcherby Jermaine Fletcher

I am going to be honest with you: Moonlight was the one picture this year that I didn’t want to watch going into the Oscars®. I watched the trailers, I saw the interviews, I read the reviews, and I witnessed some of its early accolades. However, this coming-of-age story about a black, gay boy living in a tough neighborhood in Miami was something I wasn’t ready to see. Why? Because once upon a time I was a black, gay boy living in a tough neighborhood in Jamaica. In my head, seeing this film would elicit one of two reactions: me bawling on the floor or me in a fit of rage because they didn’t do the story justice. It wasn’t until the night before the Academy Awards® that I sat down with my boyfriend, and we watched Moonlight together.

At the end of the movie, I was stunned. In those few moments after the film ended, I knew that this movie would stay with me for a long time. Just like the young Little in the beginning of the film, I was chased by the other boys at school. Like Chiron, I was bullied relentlessly and called a “faggot.” Even though I hadn’t admitted it publicly at the time, my gayness was the determining factor that led to me being an outcast. Finally, like Black, I too tried to perform masculinity, though, admittedly, was never quite good at it.

Lo and behold, the next night I sat in my boyfriend’s apartment and watched—snafu and all—as Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture. What an incredible feeling it was to see a movie being validated that, in my eyes, represented my own life and struggle.

Less than 24 hours later, a black friend of mine posted on Facebook, “At the end of the day Oscars still so white.” This threw me for a loop because the cast of Moonlight is entirely black. Did she not consider this to be a black movie? Did the gayness negate the blackness? It was during my self-questioning that I reminded myself that in times of progress I should not become complacent. Instead, I need to be more vigilant and acknowledge that this one movie about black queerness that found mainstream success is hardly enough to impact tropes surrounding black, gay representation on-screen.

For me, Moonlight is representative of both black and gay identity, and to imply that it’s one or the other is inadequate. As a black, gay man, my blackness and my gayness are not independent of each other. Therefore, narratives in the media must address these identities at the intersection where they meet.

Time and time again, I am reminded of the fact that representation matters. My coming of age as a black, gay man was molded by white storytellers. My first conscious memory of gay representation onscreen was the TV show Queer as Folk. I was 13. I would lock myself in my room and watch, turning the volume down low out of fear that my mother would hear. Watching these men living in their gay identity was something foreign to me, but I couldn’t help but feel a great admiration for them. While I understood their experience of gayness, I was aware that I couldn’t accept it as my own. It wasn’t my experience, and it never would be. But I found comfort in white homosexual representation; it seemed easier and more willingly accepted. Honestly, it wasn’t the acceptance I craved, it was the privilege denied to me.

Growing up, images showcasing black gayness on-screen seemed nonexistent. There was no one for me to look up to. Until I saw Paris Is Burning, I never felt represented on-screen. I was 23 at the time. I remember being haunted by the opening scene, which featured the following lines: “I remember my dad say, ‘You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two: that they’re just black, and they’re male. But you’re black, and you’re male, and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time’.” It was the very first time I had heard somebody other than myself acknowledge the intersectionality of what it means to be black and gay. It took a 22-year-old movie for me to see myself represented on-screen in both struggle and celebration. It took another four years for me to see the sketches of my identity on-screen again in Moonlight.

The experiences of the black audience are rarely told beyond of the stories of slavery and racism or the images of thugs, housemaids, the fatherless, the motherless or the poor. Our stories are often rooted in the stereotypes that exist in our culture. However, images of black queerness are fleeting, and Moonlight all too accurately depicts the silent, painful suffering of black, gay men. Black, gay boys need to see themselves represented on-screen so their existence can be validated. How I felt as a black, gay boy looking for media representation still sits with me today as a black, gay man.

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