Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight explores the life of Chiron – a black gay man in a rough Miami neighbourhood – across three periods in his life. He’s taken in by a well-meaning couple (played by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe), but as he ages he becomes increasingly isolated because of the way he moves and looks, facing bullying from classmates and even his mother, who imply that his body language and style of dress denote his sexuality. His response is to perform a version of masculinity that is expected of a black male in order to fit in.
Moonlight‘s focus on the performance of gender is similar to Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning (currently on UK Netflix), which follows the underground drag ball circuit in New York in the late 1980s. The participants of these ‘balls’ were often gay black men who came along in order to express themselves and meet people living a similar lifestyle. Paris Is Burning visualises the idea that gender roles are socially constructed, giving rules to how a person must dress, act and talk depending on their sex. Simone de Beauvoir famously quoted that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one”, arguing that gender and sex are not related in the way that we assume they are.
Moonlight builds on this idea of gender being something that is performed as opposed to inherent, but this time in a fictional setting. While Paris Is Burning examined black gay men against the back drop of a ‘White America’, comparing how the mainstream media rules over minorities of race and sexuality, Moonlight feels like more of an examination into the fragility of black masculinity.
In much of Moonlight, masculinity is a rigid, unsliding scale – hard, aggressive and emotionally ambiguous is the only acceptable form of behaviour amongst the black males of Chiron’s teenage peer group. His friend Kevin is the one exception to this rule, with scenes between the pair providing an outlet for the navigation of confusing and intense emotions. Kevin presents himself as a traditionally masculine guy in his use of language regarding women, perhaps in order to hide his sexuality and avoid being singled out in the way that Chiron is.
As Chiron grows older, he recognises the need to conform to this heteronormative idea of black masculinity. He has two choices: embrace his sexuality in the knowledge it will open him up to abuse and hatred, or perform the identity of a straight black male and live a quieter life. Paris is Burning shows how this kind of flexible identity is essential to survive as a black gay man. The people it features perform as their real selves onstage, allowing flamboyance and theatricality to take centre stage away from the social pressures of the real world, but they also show that they can ‘fit in’ when needed, performing in ‘business’ outfits in a sly mockery of the mainstream. In the third act of the film, Chiron chooses to embrace the stereotypical black male performance, suddenly becoming a muscular, grill-wearing drug dealer, far from the vulnerable kid he was in the previous act. He may still be the same person inside, but his external appearance now fits the code expected of him.
Moonlight takes time to study the shape and movements of the body and explore how we’ve been conditioned to associate different movements with gender and sexuality. Chiron is shown as a child enjoying a dance class at school, looking at himself in the mirror and admiring his own movements. Jenkins also includes scenes where the actor looks directly into the camera. These are reminiscent of scenes in Paris Is Burning, inviting the audience to examine the body language and features of the subject. Whilst we are told that Chiron is gay, the sexual orientations of other characters are not explicitly revealed, and this makes our examinations of other characters, like Kevin, more intense, asking the question: can we tell if someone is gay just from their appearance?
Throughout the film, Chiron is asked to consider who he is, and who he would like to be known as. He acquires the nicknames ‘Little’ and ‘Black’, but Juan (Mahershala Ali), the drug dealer who takes him under his wing, encourages Chiron to make his own name and become his own person rather than the one people would like to see him as. Whilst others in the film are sure of who they are, some even from a young age, Chiron reacts to how people perceive him, following a similar path to those who try to blend in Paris Is Burning. Almost 30 years after Livingston’s revolutionary documentary, Jenkins has created a beautiful film that is both beautiful and a stepping off point for discussions on how sexuality is linked to social expectations of masculinity.