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'Moonlight' - Official Competition - 60th BFI London Film Festival

Source: Jeff Spicer / Getty

If the concept of romantic gay Black male relationships makes you feel uncomfortable, you are exactly who needs to see Moonlight.

Based on the real life stories of filmmakers Barry Jenkins & playwright Tarell McCraney, the film explores drug use, poverty, bullying and intimate love between Black men.

First read of that description, you may pigeon hole this film to the stereotypical story arches we see play out time and time again on screen, but it’s so much more. In Chiron, the lead protagonist, we find a little bit of ourselves as he grows in this coming of age story.

We are all painfully aware of the infectious homophobic thinking patterns that run rampant in the Black community. Tropes of hyper-masculinity have shadowed the Black experience for generations, saddled by the treatment of Black men throughout American history as breeders and beasts. This inaccurate, stark hyper-masculine narrative has rooted itself in our perceptions of each other as Black people–particularly Black men. Any sign of vulnerability or softness is inappropriately handled as weakness and a threat to strong Black patriarchy.

Now those black and white misconceptions become illuminated in color on screen with Moonlight, an emotional drama that serves as an examination into the complexities of Black masculinity.

Set off with an all-star cast including singer Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage), Andre Holland (American Horror Story), Naomi Harris (Skyfall) and breakout star Trevante Rhodes, ‘Moonlight’ lives as one of the most nuanced depictions of Black life ever seen on film.

Trevante plays Chiron, a kid growing up in an impoverished household with his drug addict single mother. He is mentored by neighborhood drug dealer (Ali) who invites him into his home, and accepts him fully. As he grows older, his understanding of his sexuality blossoms during an intimate experience with his friend Kevin (Holland) in high school.

Rhodes approached the role fearlessly, drawing from his experience with a childhood friend for inspiration.

“My best friend since I was 10 years old is a gay man, and I literally saw his struggle, growing up for the last 13/14 years….it was a tough time. I understood that struggle, I’m happy I got this opportunity to, not tribute it to him, but it was a liberating feeling to know I did my part in kind of helping merge everyone,” he told HB. 

“It’s really dumb to me that as a people we complain about not being included, yet we push people aside because of how they are born,” he continued.  “I don’t understand the world, I was born this way, I was born dark. I was born with all this melanin. And you wanna kill people for how they are born.”

Rhodes describes himself as a confident man who has always loved himself, so breaking into the role as Chiron required three weeks of intense method acting preparation as he walked around Los Angeles in isolation.

“To embody this person, I felt like I had a suffocating weight on my chest, I couldn’t connect with people, and that’s what I wanted the most in my life as this person, and Chiron didn’t have that. I had never felt like that. I felt I have 5% Chiron in me, and doing this role I exhausted 100% of that 5%.”

Rhodes explains that many men approach a character like Chiron with fear, unwilling to accept they may have more in common with a gay man than they think.

“If you have a friend who is like ‘nah i’m not gonna watch something about gay dudes,’ they are exactly who needs to see this film. This is the most humanizing thing I’ve seen about black people on screen,” he explains.

Rhodes goes on to describe how many Black men resist identifying with another man based off of his sexual preferences.

“A lot of cats may have some hesitance to see this film because they are afraid to see themselves in Chiron. And the fact they see a part of themselves in Chiron, they will misinterpret that understanding as being homosexual, because they don’t have the ability to see the whole thing. They can’t see it as a person who is insecure, a person who hurts. We all have the same sensations and feelings, but they will bypass all that and just think they can’t relate because he’s a gay Black man.”

This film functions to connect the dots between diverse Black experiences. Grey area themes and contradictions drive the plot–the thug/drug dealer who is a loving mentor, the drug abusing mother who loves her son, and the aggressive high school boy who finds love with a fellow student on a beach.

By covering these nuances, this film offers the wide spectrum of Black life and Black love. Which means we can all see ourselves in it. In the humanity of it all.

‘Moonlight’ is in select New York and L.A. theaters today.


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