Recently, I went to see the Barry Jenkin’s drama Moonlight. It is a beautifully shot, emotionally stunning, subtle powerhouse of a film. The movie follows the tumultuous life and struggles of a young, gay, African-American man named Chiron (played by 3 different actors at different stages of Chiron’s life by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) from childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Moonlight is based partially on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (which is based on McCraney’s own personal life experiences), and partially on Jenkin’s life experiences, which he found shared a lot in common with McCraney’s: poor, hardscrabble childhoods, a life on rough streets,and mothers with drug addictions. The film explores the painfully shy, emotionally abused Chiron’s experiences of being bullied by other boys his age who seem to perceive him as ‘different’ and ‘other’ long before Chiron comes to terms with his sexuality. It also looks at his unusual (and what appears to be mostly quite positive) friendship with a local drug dealer named Juan (the excellent Marhashala Ali), his crack-addicted, explosive mother (a haunting Naomie Harris), and his journey to figuring out what it means to be a young, gay, Black man in an unforgiving world with no father, almost no friends (save one).
There are so many things that are wonderful, heartbreaking, and awe-inspiring in this film, I am loathe to talk about what is still deeply troubling about it (to me). Full disclosure: I am a white woman. Not just a white woman who lives in New York City (which I do) happily surrounded by every ethnicity you can imagine (which I am), but also a white woman who originally grew up in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the country. I am stating this now so that you, Dear Reader, know I am fully aware of my white privilege. What I am about to write is in no way a critique of Black culture, or an assumption that I somehow understand it, or that I am not in any way culturally ignorant (the “I don’t see color” argument, which is never actually true). Nor is what I am about to write strictly a movie review. If you want a good, accurate, and very well-written review of Moonlight, I recommend this one: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/moonlight-2016.
When I saw Moonlight, my first reaction was that I was overjoyed to see the positive portrayal of a young, gay, Black man on the big screen. While television has been breaking down cultural, racial, sexual, and gender barriers for some time now, film often takes a longer time to keep up (See:#OscarsSoWhite). I was also very happy to see Marhashala Ali’s character Juan treated as not some criminal with no heart because he was a drug dealer, but as a whole human being with love, compassion, and soul who is simply flawed in his life choices. He was mostly a very positive role model for Chiron; although in the end, Juan’s career choice ended up hurting them both in ways they did not see coming. I also loved the complexity and depth of the friendship and love between Chiron and his best friend Kevin which I think was a rare thing to see on screen between two Black men.
What I did not like was seeing yet another poor, single Black woman portrayed both as a single mother who can’t seem to hack it without a man to help her, and one that is addicted to crack. When the relationship between Chiron and his mother Paula are first seen, it looked like it was being framed in a positive way: she’s a tough, no-nonsense working mother (a Nurse, I think), who is always trying to do right by her son and is extremely protective of him. But then, fairly soon after we are introduced to Chiron’s mother we see her gradually slide into the hell that is drug addiction where she becomes desperate for money, has no idea what Chiron is up to, loses the ability to parent altogether, and becomes a crazed, angry, hateful human being who breaks her son’s heart over and over again. Chiron eventually follows in Juan’s footsteps and becomes a drug dealer himself when he comes of age, even after (or perhaps because of) what he sees it has done to his mother. The film feels fatalistic about Chiron’s choices, as if there truly was no other road his path towards adulthood could take.
My issue with all of this? Haven’t we all seen this characterization of Black life represented enough on the big screen? I understand that these are characters that most certainly have real-life counterparts in Black communities throughout the country. But African-American lives are rich with multiple narratives, multiple ways of life, multiple kinds of people and choices that could serve as great stories for films that have yet to be made, and I think it would be nice to see a more varied selection of those stories then the kind that can often feel like a retread of Boys N The Hood. It is starting to feel like close to a stereotype to see in films (practically its own genre): young Black men in an impoverished neighborhood with cracked-addicted mother and absent father grows up in the mean streets to become a drug dealer. That description could be about so many different movies. There absolutely are other dramatic films that deviate from this trope; but to be honest I don’t think there are nearly enough of them. Certainly not in mainstream cinema where they get screened at places like Cannes or the TriBeCa Film Festival. Certainly not that get recognized frequently at the Academy Awards. Why aren’t more being made/seen?
Please understand that this is in no way a dig at the filmmakers or the actors of Moonlight, which is a phenomenal film on multiple fronts. But if a privileged white girl like myself can look at this movie and immediately feel the sickening sense of deja-vu seeing Black people portrayed (albeit with nuance, great writing, and excellent acting) yet again as drug dealers, addicts, and dysfunctional criminals with seemingly no other options in life but the least appealing ones (or Blacks are seen as slaves, as we have seen in a multitude of films in recent years, like Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave, and The Birth of A Nation) instead of as romantics, doctors, lawyers, savant geniuses, inventors, magicians, Katniss Everdeen, wizards, Avengers (ok at least that’s starting to change!), cowboys (most cowboys were in fact, Black or Hispanic), politicians, road warriors like Mad Max and Furiosa, and royals, all the time instead of occasionally, I can truly only imagine how tired African-Americans must be of seeing it too.