Moonlight: the feminist film we really needed

In light of the most recent drama at the Oscars – that, frankly, I am still cackling about – I wanted to focus some attention on Moonlight, which has been tragically living in La La Land’s shadow for the last few months.

In an age when feminism has finally become “popular” and when hashtags like #EverdaySexism are being used more and more to out the unfortunate patriarchal constructions that embody most of the societies we are living in, gender and sexual imbalances are being confronted more than ever before. Moonlight is an important film, a piece of cinematic poetry that gently reminds us of the crucial factor of feminism: that it is not meant only to help women.

Hypermasculinity, and the societal expectations of men to be strong and unemotional, are as inherently damaging as the dichotomic expectation of women to be warm and pliant, and, one might argue, even more taboo. The rise in male mental health charities like CALM encouraging men to talk, to “open up” comes as a result of the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 years old, with 75-percent of all suicides in the UK being male. It is an issue that has widely been brushed under the carpet for centuries, as the “disposable male” trope is aligned consistently with sexuality. Meanwhile, media audiences are encouraged to support men throwing themselves into battle, into burning buildings, with their shirts off, for the sake of the damsel in distress.

Moonlight explores how humanity fares in hypermasculine settings when a man doesn’t quite “fit”. An already brutal topic, but the film portrays it to the severest degree by focusing on the African American male perspective before unpacking it completely.

Divided into three parts spanning across Chiron’s childhood and young adult life, the film shows him struggle to grow up in a world that is meant to eliminate the softness of black men, to make them hard. The audience watches how his character is literally beaten to fit a standard for men, and how that affects and shapes his three identities: Little (Alex R. Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Trevante Rhodes).

Little and Chiron are discriminated against for reasons that they cannot understand, becoming creatures of bones and hurt in a school where every other boy brags about the girl they fuck, the drugs they take, the fights they won. We see him struggle to suppress his emotionality, which overtake him in crushing admissions, such as, “I cry so much sometimes, I feel like I’ma turn into drops.” Chiron reveals an unspoken and certainly hidden secret in the black community of how alpha-male culture is aggressively enforced as a means of protection.

As Black, in the final third of the picture, it appears he has successfully repressed his sensitivity: he has become the whole she-bang of a street-hardened male, complete with wife-beater vest, gold-grilled teeth, a drug-dealing post, and a fast-car-racing lifestyle.

It is almost impossible to see the younger Chiron in him: gangly, skinny, with a jutting lip, until the camera begins to linger on the masterful acting from Rhodes, revealing the same mannerisms and expressions peeking out from underneath the facade. Suddenly, Black is not that stereotype of masculinity shoved down our necks in the American film-scape but that lonely adolescent with nobody to love him, the rest of his image a result of circumstance in order to defend himself from his unforgiving landscape.

As he retreats back to his Miami childhood home from the loneliness of his Atlantan adulthood, Black slowly revels in the sensitivity he once hid. An emotional reconciliation with his mother and a phone call from Kevin, the only man he has ever loved or been intimate with, shows that he is not so hurt that he cannot be redeemed.

Director and writer Barry Jenkins deconstructs Black’s false, dangerous image, with some of the most tender and subtle writing to hit the big screen, as these he and Kevin sit in public, well aware of the image they generate, but sheepishly and bashfully reminding themselves of the shape of the other. When Kevin holds Black, it plays back to the child on the beach: the single other time Chiron has been touched with any kind of kindness. The moment’s message is simple: everyone needs love, everyone needs to be touched – and it is okay to express that, certainly and especially if you are a man.

I cannot imagine how heartbreaking, yet affirming it would be to watch this film as a gay black man: a story that is so rarely told, and never to the degree and acclaim that Moonlight has reached. It is a impeccably sensitive and nuanced piece of art that still makes my heart ache, and I can only congratulate them from my heart of hearts that they (eventually) won the Oscar.  La La Land was great at removing audiences from reality for a bit, but Moonlight won because it did what filmmaking is supposed to do: to convey and celebrate the truth within life.