Moonlight is truly a pivotal piece of cinematic pleasure. Its visual representations of Black masculinity deconstruct the dominant norms in American media, delicately illustrating feminist ideologies of identity and sexuality on the silver screen. So often, emotion and vulnerability are constructed as inherently "feminine," indicative of weakness, and necessarily oppositional to "real" masculinity. Yet Moonlight does not try to maintain a stereotypical Black masculine façade, and instead explores the possibilities of the erotic as a way of knowing. Audre Lorde (1984) writes that living “from within outward” and embracing the power of the erotic allows us “to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation” (58).
In this scene, intimacy is a source of power. As the two young men sit next to one another on the beach, the rolling ocean waves become a soothing soundtrack to their moment together. Though technically in a public space, they are bathed in the darkness of the evening, safe to share in their vulnerability as ridicule becomes reassurance, and a touch becomes a caress. Temporarily outside the heteronormative patriarchal social world, they control their own deeply personal identifications with masculinity as more fluid, emotive, radically vulnerable. Although Chiron says that his unspecified desires “don’t make sense,” Kevin’s response is a playful acceptance based on feeling, rather than an attempt at justification through social logic.
The colonialist imaginary of white America has perpetuated the stereotypical objectification of Black men as being animalistic and hyper-sexual. Popular culture frequently accepts these depictions, building on the constructions of Black masculinity as necessarily characterized by misogyny and violence. These tactics then push fear, guilt, and blame onto the exoticized Other. But Moonlight does not fall into the traps of easy Hollywood marketability. The film does not need to rely on explicit sexuality or stereotypical masculinity, as it instead markedly embraces softness, subtlety, and an intentional lack of “grit.” The slow, careful exploration of the intersections of marginalized identities through a lens of love makes Moonlight and its critical acclaim an extremely important feminist intervention in mainstream cinema.
Lorde, Audre. Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press, 2007.