Pressure to conform to an ideal of Black masculinity is huge
MOONLIGHT written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, with Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Trevante Rhodes. An Elevation Pictures release. 111 minutes. Opens Friday (October 28). See Showtimes.
My old barbershop in Scarborough is one of those hangouts where Black men congregate regularly to clean up their fades and talk about everything under the sun: basketball, Kanye West, the police, hustlers and politics.
When Rob Ford was running for re-election before his cancer diagnosis, I got into a heated debate with everyone in that room. They tried to argue that Ford’s policies were on point, and I would counter with why that was all a crock. Finally, one barber dropped the gauntlet: they didn’t care if Ford smoked crack or said stupid things or ran a poor political game. He was a good role model for their kids because he didn’t try to make friends with the LGBTQ community.
I grew up homophobic, too (a product of my environment or just plain ignorance), and I knew that was the end to the argument.
I don’t know whether homophobia is more prevalent in Black communities than white. I just know that it’s far more obvious, whether in hip-hop, dancehall or a barbershop. Anyone in that room of 20 could have been a homosexual, nodding along to an attitude that keeps the closet door slammed shut.
And that’s why a film like Moonlight is so urgent.
Barry Jenkins’s sensitive and sublime adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play is about a young Black man named Chiron who’s struggling with his identity. The story drops in and out of his life – we first meet him as a young bullied child (played by Alex Hibbert), then a teen (Ashton Sanders) crippled by fear but awakening to sexual possibility, then a muscular, crack-slinging adult (Trevante Rhodes) who suppresses his instincts while boasting swagger like the hyper-masculine Black men we’ve come to idolize through pop culture.
It’s a rare film, elbowing out some space for gay pride within the restrictive definitions of Black masculinity.
“I think it’s so sad when that definition is limited,” says singer ‘s Janelle Monáe, “when it exes out embracing the things that make you unique – even if it makes others uncomfortable. I get sad and cry for our boys who fall victim to that, who are living up to the stereotype of what it means to be masculine.”
Monáe has a small role in Moonlight as a nurturing voice in Chiron’s life. I met with her at TIFF, alongside director Jenkins and actor Rhodes, who modelled his performance on a close friend who had an impossible time accepting his own homosexuality.
“I think he knew,” Rhodes recalls, “but he didn’t want the world to know. For me, that’s where Chiron came from.”
While that’s a reality for men of all colours, it feels particularly intense for those who have to live up to an ideal of Black masculinity, a construct none of us can nail down during these interviews.
“I don’t think there’s a hard definition of it,” says Jenkins, who grew up in the same Miami community where Moonlight is set. “I’ve even gone back and forth on whether to describe it as Black masculinity or masculinity in general. They’re all performances. That’s where the crux of this character is, a young man who begins to perform what the world is telling him is the proper showcase of masculinity, of Black masculinity, of ’hood masculinity.”
Both Jenkins and Rhodes agree that while there are other contributing factors, most of us get our ideas about modern Black masculinity from music videos – hip-hop especially, where our icons flaunt their calcified exterior, wads of cash and string of women.
“There’s nothing invalid about that showcase of masculinity,” says Jenkins. “Some people do feel like that’s what masculinity should look like. There’s also another kind of masculinity that we don’t see as often. Tarell and I grew up in a neighbourhood where we knew lots of men like Chiron and Juan (a compassionate drug dealer played by Mahershala Ali).”
I bring up 2Pac as a 90s poster boy for Black masculinity, pointing specifically to his misogynistic limo-to-strip-club video for How Do You Want It. If that’s Black masculinity, you can imagine its effect on Black feminism (more on that with Monáe). Jenkins counters with Pac’s Dear Mama, a sensitive ode to the strength and resilience of Black women.
“Maybe it’s a false duality, but there’s a duality there,” says Jenkins. “There’s both sides of Tupac’s persona. The character Juan has two sides to his story: he’s a ruthless drug dealer but also a nurturing paternal figure.”
It’s those competing traits that Jenkins picks apart in Moonlight, surrounding Chiron with various male figures who wear stereotypes of Black masculinity like blackface, revealing the performative aspects behind a notion that needs to be redefined or dismantled. At the same time, his film offers a much more inclusive take on Black masculinity that the screen (and the barbershops) rarely makes room for.
“We’ve got to fill that void,” says Jenkins about the representations of Blackness we don’t see. “Thankfully, the movie is out in the world. People are saying, ‘I haven’t seen that before.’ I saw it all the time. And shit, why haven’t I put it onscreen before? Why haven’t I told this story before? The time is now.”
Listen to more of Radheyan Simonpillai’s conversation with Trevante Rhodes:
Don’t miss our review for Moonlight here and our TIFF feature with Janelle Monáe.
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