African American Experiences in Moonlight

Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, is an outstanding Academy Award-winning movie that documents the struggle of African American men exploring their identities in an impoverished community, that due to structural inequities, is corrupted by drugs and violence. The movie presents a depiction of the African American experiences, sexual identification, and critiques toxic masculinity. The director successfully takes audiences through three stages of the protagonist’s journey of coming to terms with himself, presenting the fragility, mutability, complexity in the thoughts, and feelings of the main character, Chiron. Through the journery of the protagonist, the movie wisely present the social expectation on men who are forced to be physically and emotionally strong and tough. Moonlight is proactively feminist in that it attempts to challenge the gender norms and role placed on men, especially regarding the exorbitant physical and emotional 'toughness' that they are required to display. In this paper, I intend to evaluate the portrayal of toxic masculinity in the movie, and how it can be an impediment is the feminist revolution that our society needs.

According to Kupers, he states toxic masculinity is defined as encompassing socially regressive maleness that “serve to foster domination” and “wanton violent”. Each aspect of Kuper’s definition is shown through in the interactions between male characters in Moonlight. The first part, entitled Little, chronicles the protagonist, Chiron (Elex Hibber), at the age of six, revealing the desire to assert domination that linked with the display of violence. The film begins with Chiron (nicknamed “Little”) being bullied by a group of young boy. Afraid of being beaten by other boys, Chiron takes refuge in an abandoned apartment complex, slamming the door to prevent other boys catching him. The other boys then aggressively throw things through the broken window of the apartment, trying to hurt Little, who cowers in the corner. Fortunately, Chiron is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who is a drug dealer. As the film progresses, it reveals how these young boy characters desire to use violence to fit into the dominant role, which society has expected them to. At the minute 12:47, a group of boys play rough football, a sport that is usually associated with men, while Chiron is standing aside. The way the film uses stereotypical image of black make in a solidarity role. According to hooks, it is common notion representing black men as lacking connection and identification with other black people. However, Jenkins challenges this stereotype through the representation of Chiron in different stages of his life in which he decides to show others he is not a loser.

After withdrawing himself from a game of rough play, his only friend, Kevin, suggests Chiron how to avoid being victimized:

Kevin: All you gotta do is show these n*ggas you ain’t soft

Chiron: But I ain’ soft.

Kevin: I know, I know. But it don’t mean nothing if they don’t know.

Chiron's verbal declaration that ‘I ain’t soft’ does not seem to be sufficient, and his only means of corroboration is wrestle. Besides, Kevin’s advice does foreshadows Chiron’s choice to assimilate and conform to the hegemonic standard of maleness. Although the scene depicts an amiable fight between the two acquaintances, their unspoken agreement on physical prowess as the paragon of masculinity is a point of reference. They understand that the primary way for them to demonstrate their hardness is physically conquer one another. They also accept that the reason for Chiron’s exclusion form the in-group of young boys is his failure to fit into the ideal definitions of masculinity. In (2005), Cornell states that power differentials formulate a hierarchical structure within masculinities that at once constructs inequality among men from different race, culture, sexuality, and so on. The film represents violence not only as a tool of victimization showed in the category of manhood. Overall, the first act shows that the socialization of masculine ideals begins at a young age and defines ideal masculinity as related to toughness, self-sufficient attitudes, and lack of emotional sensitivity.

In the second act, which is entitled Chiron, captures the protagonist at age sixteen. The continuation of Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and his childhood friend, Kevin’s (Jharell Jerome) bond is through their “beautiful and mundane” sexual experience. “I cry so much, sometimes I feel like I’m gonna turn into drops,” Chiron confesses to Kevin at the beach. There, the boys talk about tears, and Kevin imagines his tear merging with the ocean, an admission that quickly becomes charged with his own fragile masculinity, since Kevin denies that he cries while Chiron admits that he does. This shows that norm of cisgender masculinity that have caused the teenage boys to smother their emtional urges, which is a innately human, in order to make them perform the gender role that they are expected to carry out. Feeling empathy for one another, the two boys lean in for a kiss in the shadow of a waxing moon. The moonlight touching their fresh skin and healing their vulnerable souls. Under the moonlight, Chiron feels peaceful and safe enough to express not only his sexual feelings but also his true identity. However, at the end of the kissing scene, Chiron immediately says “I’m sorry” to Kevin, since he feels embarrassed by his behaviour. Chiron goes on to wipe his hand on the sand, in a gesture of erasure. Chiron's sexual suppression, exemplifies Butler’s concept of normative violence whereby “gendered actors are constrained by the bodily, historical, and political situations out of which they act”. This further emphasizes his self-denial of his sexuality, but it is not an act of free will. Restrictive and backward gender norms are the reason why Chiron is unable to accept himself and who he loves.

The second act gets more intense since Terrel persuades Kevin replay a childhood game ‘Knock Down, Stay Down,” which requires him to attack someone until they are unable to get up. In order to maintain his maleness for being ‘hard,’ Kevin is led to betray his friendship by preying on Chiron. This is promptly when Chiron’s world comes crashing down around him. This game itself presents the toxic standard of masculinity that some are uplifted for their ability to dominate through violence. As one who is victimed for not being ‘manly’ enough, Chiron’s only options are to ‘stay down or to endure more abuse. In the principal's office, Chiron is urged to press charges and give the school the names of the boys who beat him up. He cries, telling the principal she doesn't understand, meaning that from a woman's perspective, they only believe that they are a victim of the social gender norms without recognition that man is also a victim who is only allowed to express his feelings through violence. Indeed, many boys brutalized and victimized by gender role, forcing them to deny their sense of self and follow the role given by society.

The next day, Chiron walks into school, determined. He enters his science class, picks up a chair, and slams it into Terrel's head. Terrel falls to the ground, tightening his fists but mostly still. Chiron is arrested and put into a police car outside school, and Kevin comes out to watch. Chiron has been taught to use violence as the only way to protect himself and get back his power and authority. Through these depictions of physical violence, Jenkisn allows us to contemplate the glorified notion of masculinity and its internalization into the psycho of adolescent boys. As Hooks acknowledges, like women, men are also hurt by rigid sexist role pattern. Hooks addresses, “men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it,” and “this suffering should not be ignored”. Indeed, there are many men who don’t feel comfortable to follow the social expectation forcing men to be physically and mentally strong, which prevents them from expressing who they really are. It is clear that the social expectations on gender roles damages both genders through many generations.

According to her book Feminism is for everybody, “before women could change patriarchy we had to change ourselves; we had to raise our consciousness” and “to end patriarchy we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts, until we let go of sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist through action”. When the word “feminism” come to minds, lots of people think it is a movement to end sexism for women only. However, feminism is actually a movement to end sexism for all of us, female and male. Although men as a group have and do benefit the most from gender scripts, from the assumption that they are more powerful than females, those benefits have come with a price. By limiting their options to solve problem, patriarchal society forces men to use violence as the only appropriate way. However, many men find it difficult to be patriarchs since they feel very disturbed by male violence against women. Fearing the isolation from society, they have to passively support male domination even when they know it is cruel and wrong. Like women, men are also trapped in their gender role. Thus, the feminist movement is not the revolution for women’s rights and freedom; it is the hope of release of both genders from the brutality of gender norms.

The third act, entitled Black after Kevin’s term of endearment for Chiron, is his quest for finding the humanity he is forced to repress. The third act begins with the image of Black (Trevante Rhodes) being represented as an ideal masculine male with gold teeth. As a result of rage, self-hate and a difficult time in jail, Chiron bulks up, grows new layers of muscle and becomes unrecognisable in this last stage of development. Chiron transitions from a child is bullied for being perceived as effeminate, into an ultra-masculine adult man who stifles his sexuality as his way of avoiding social exclusion. According to Paralik, he states that in order to be considered human by mainstream society, one must ‘perform’ heterosexuality. By failing to do this, Chiron is rendered an illegitimate subject in the social world, as his dissent from normativity is essentially ‘inhuman.’ Understanding this cultural gendered notion, he believes the way to help him being accepted by society is “build from the ground up,” and “build hard”. The drug trade, as a male-dominanted career, as well as his muscular appearance, offers him the opportunity to embrace a role of dominance.

After ten years, when Chiron returns to Miami, he meets Kevin at dinner. In the penultimate scene, Chiron finally lets his ‘masculinity mask’ down, confessing to Kevin that “you the only man that’s ever touched me… you’re the only one”. Chiron’s discloses imply that although Chiron has forced himself to embrace the masculinity characteristic, he finds himself oppressed and afraid of expressing his true emotions and sexual identity. Masculinity has been commonly recognized as a crucial characteristics of men across generations, yet on the other hand, compulsory masculinity might be a burden on many different kinds of men and boys, according to Hallberstam’s Female masculinity. In the third act, audiences see the dominattion of heterosexual masculinity aims to suppress alternative masculinities. Jenkins has represent black gay man without marginalizing it along with the portrayal of the black gay man’s self acceptance and celebration of his identitity. Chiron’s way of confessing to Kevin implies his decision of adopting his gay identity without feeling regreted.

It is a common misconception that feminism demands extra opportunities for women, especially western white women because the movement is historically known to begin with personalities such as Christine de Pizan, and the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft etc. However, Moonlight is the perfect example of a feminist movie even though it’s about a man, a black man and presents intersections of poverty, crime, and racial injustice. The moral of Chiron’s journey of self-acceptance is a feminist one, because it requires us to toss out the burdens of social expectations and find love for ourselves.  

07 July 2022
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