The Moonlit Prison

Everybody's Protest Novel

“Literature and sociology are not one in the same,” wrote James Baldwin in his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” That essay is often remembered for its scalding criticism of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which Baldwin found to be so forceful it was dehumanizing, but if you read closely, the literary criticism is secondary. Baldwin’s real concern was the humanity of black people and how that humanity is jeopardized when black characters become objects. The characters of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are beautifully rendered, awash in moonlight, sunlight, ocean water, and even darkness. Even as the camera swirls through projects and dingy apartments and the trap, black people just glow, every nigga a star. But as your eyes adjust to the star light, this beautiful, reverent black gaze, you realize that this beautified blackness obscures the black people, especially the main character, Chiron.

It begins with Chiron’s introduction in part “i” of the film, which is divided into three parts, each named after Chiron’s name at the time – “Little” for childhood, “Chiron” for teendom, “Black” for young adulthood. Materializing as a white streak racing across the frame, Chiron debuts in torment. Fleeing a mob of his peers, who gleefully pursue him, hurling insults and objects, he hides out in an abandoned drug den. At this point he is “Little,” a taciturn child. Juan, a drug dealer who Little darted past while escaping the mob, rescues Little and takes him out to eat, eager to help him find his way home. Little happily devours that free meal and then another soon after, but even as his mouth is occupied his eyes remain drawn, the torment never subsiding. When he finally returns home, escorted by Juan, he remains in anguish, his expression troubled even as he’s reunited with his worried mother. His humble Miami home is clearly not a home, and his discontent with that reality encases him, defining his every moment on screen.

Jenkins does a great job of contextualizing that discontent by slowly revealing the mixed messages that fill Little’s life. In one scene he’s measuring dicks with his peers, while in another he’s openly pondering the meaning of the word “faggot,” his face always contorted, skeptical. As Little matures into Chiron, a lanky, withdrawn teenager, his confusion reaches its peak. Following a title card, Chiron is again introduced in agony. Sitting in a high school class, he is humiliated by a bully. The scene is horrifying. Chiron and the bully sit on opposite ends of the classroom, the camera stretching to frame them both, but the bully dominates the image; it feels like a one-sided tennis match, each of the bully’s swings landing beyond Chiron’s reach. “My name is Chiron,” Chiron volleys, his name his only defense.

This section of the movie adds more to the pile of confusion, for the audience and Chiron. Juan is revealed to have died and Chiron’s mother has become a full-blown drug addict, turning tricks to fund her habit. Chiron’s feelings about these turns of events are unknown. He occasionally spends the night at the house of Juan’s widow, Teresa, who may or may not have continued Juan’s drug business, but neither this detail nor Chiron’s feelings about Juan’s death are explored. Jenkins leaves these threads to dangle, choosing instead to constrict the film around Chiron’s budding romance with his schoolmate, Kevin, and his growing tension with his bully, Terrel, a choice that climaxes in an entanglement of violence, intimacy, and betrayal.

This constriction is suffocating. At this point, Chiron’s entire character is defined by tragedy. Death, addiction, sexual frustration, alienation,  and humiliation shadow him at every turn, a chain gang of miseries. This could be the makings of a complex human, someone in rich thrall, but it’s so conspicuously contrived. Chiron’s entire world has been ground down into people and circumstances that let him down. He lives for nothing, he longs for nothing. He’s just an ornate receptacle of pathologies on a conveyor belt of ruin.

Little was a child so it made sense that his world was circumscribed, but Chiron has free reign and we never see it amount to anything. He is given money by Teresa, but we never see him spend it. He goes to school, but he’s only shown taking one class. He has a wet dream, but it’s about the only schoolmate he’s talked to that isn’t his bully. On the only night he’s shown as homeless, he just so happens to run into the literal boy of his dreams. To watch this movie, you can’t just suspend disbelief: you have to revoke it. Moonlight reveres black people and dwells on the tragedies that shape our lives, but it forgets about the quiet joys that are just as shaping: favorite foods, favorite shoes, favorite songs, favorite haircuts. Moonlight loves black people, but that love is a prison.

In the final section of the movie, Chiron is revealed to have served jail time and made his way to Atlanta. He is no longer scrawny. Now named Black, he is an adonis of muscle and gleaming skin, and the camera lingers on this new body. Black wears a gold chain and gold fronts, drives a muscle car, and traps. Black is hard. Jenkins spends this last arc of the movie deconstructing this hardness, first through a scene at a rehab clinic in metro Atlanta where Black’s mom apologizes, and then in an extended scene that spirits Black back to Miami. Sitting in a restaurant, slowly being seduced by Kevin, who summoned Black down to Miami through an apology, Black finds himself defending his new look. “Who is you?” Kevin asks him, a psychological undressing. Black is eager to explain himself. “I built myself from the ground up, I built myself hard,” he confesses. Kevin is appeased. Black is again Chiron, an object of pity.

But he’s not disrobed just yet. The unveiling isn’t complete until they make their way to Kevin’s apartment, where Chiron reveals that Kevin is the only person who has ever touched him sexually. This is supposed to be the saddest and happiest moment of the film, and that’s the problem.

Chiron has survived bullying, the prison industrial complex, and poverty and rebuilt himself as Black, but, the film insists,  Black is a facade. Black is really Chiron, that scared, alienated boy who just wants a home and someone to love him. This reveal isn’t implausible. Love and intimacy aren’t guaranteed, for anyone. But in order to take pity on Chiron, which is absolutely what the direction demands, we have to completely objectify him. We have to believe that the same boy who was beaten for being gay in high school was unharmed in prison. We have to believe that he had no lovers in prison. We have to believe that he has lived in Atlanta, a mecca for gay black men, and has avoided all intimacy. We have to believe that he has “Classic Man” on a CD, but doesn’t have Tinder on his smartphone. We have to believe that he believes himself to be a fake, that his life is a costume. We have to believe that, fundamentally, Black cannot be real, that a hard drug dealer cannot also be a queer man. We have to believe that Chiron is everything that the world has said him to be and that rebuilding himself, his only act of pure agency throughout the movie, is an illusion. I don’t believe.  

Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is more delicate and nuanced than Richard Wright’s ghastly Native Son, but it’s got the same source code. Moonlight makes blackness and queerness beautiful by making the world ugly, a move that’s well-meaning but deeply dishonest. Reverence and reckoning are not one in the same.

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On You Can Touch My Hair

You Can Touch My Hair

A week ago today, I ventured down to Union Square to experience You Can Touch My Hair, an interactive art exhibit intended to address the past and present fixations with the bodies of black women, which range from benign curiosity to violative exoticism. The exhibit interested me because I liked its intent, but I was uncertain about how well it could be executed given what I perceived to be the limited knowledge of the problem. In other words, I was afraid that the exhibit would be unclear to people who didn’t know about this history of Black women being openly violated. .

After directly interacting with the exhibit and tarrying to observe others (mainly non-Black people) interacting with it, I think it was generally well-executed. The structure of the exhibit was simple: Black women held signs permitting people to touch their hair and people (of all races) approached them and engaged with these women either physically or verbally or both.

Some people likened it to a “petting zoo” or to the story of Sarah Baartman, but I think that those comparisons are lame and lazy if you consider how the exhibit actually played out. For instance, while I was speaking with one of the participants, two White teenagers literally ran up to her and curiously stroked her hair then dashed back, grinning. This is exactly the kind of interaction that many critics feared:instead of lingering  to have a discussion or have the exhibit contextualized, they saw the opportunity to touch Black hair, took it and ran off. Pure exoticism.

I think that’s a misreading of what happened. What stood out to me about these White teenagers’ interaction with the participants is that they only interacted with the participants. This is important to note because Black people, particularly Black women, were flanking the exhibit throughout my stay. In fact, there were so many Black people surrounding this exhibit that I found it  because I saw a congregation of Black women! If the exhibit had been purely exotic, I think that these women (and maybe myself, since I have an afro), would have been subject to this same exoticism. When you go to a petting zoo, you pet all the goats, not just the goats behind the fence.

To be clear, I’m not saying these teenagers’ actions were completely benign. Their curiosity and their subsequent enjoyment of having it fulfilled, were kind of unsettling and bizarre, personally. Nevertheless, as explained to me by a participant, the exhibit was not anti-curiosity; they actively wanted people to engage with the uniqueness of Black hair. What the exhibit was really critical of was how that curiosity manifests in people’s interactions with black women: the unsolicited touching, the staring, the disapproval, the disgust. Those kinds of interactions make Black women feel as if they are grotesque objects without their own agency or a sense of dignity. In other words, the crux of the exhibit was the subtext of the sign, “You can touch my hair,” which was, “You can touch my hair, because I myself told you that I’m okay with it.Even those weird White teens seemed to understand that.

Admittedly, the desire to touch Black women’s hair is a left a little untouched, pun intended, but that really didn’t really seem to be the point. The point was that Black women have the right to dictate how their hair (and implicitly their bodies) are treated and that that right should be actively acknowledged by everybody. In the end, as long as Black women feel like their bodies belong to them and not anybody else – because they do, in case you thought otherwise – I’m pretty content and I imagine that many Black women are content as well.

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I didn’t link to a lot of articles within this post, but I did read a few before I wrote this. Most of them disagreed with me, but they’re worth reading anyway.

Reni Eddo-Lodge at the Guardian

Article at Jezebel.

Interview with Antonia Opiah (creator of the exhibit)

Brokey McPoverty at Racialicious