A.B. Davis Middle School, Barry Jenkins, Black Males, Black Masculinity, Bullying, Chiron, Coming-of-Age, Faggot, Hypermasculinity, Italian Club, Mahershala Ali, Manhood, Moonlight (2016), Mount Vernon High School, MVHS, Rage, Sexual Orientation
I finally, finally saw Moonlight with the wife and son at AFI Silver Spring yesterday, months after the in-crowd had already seen it and attempted to spoil it for the rest of us. It was excellent. The cinematography, the loud and incredible silences, the small moments, when actors just being in the moment with their facial expressions did more than any dialogue could to move me and anyone else watching. Mahershala Ali was only in five scenes. But his first scene set the tone for the whole movie. As Juan, Ali channeled both the need for hard hypermasculinity and the vulnerable fragility of such in just one scene. His time with the youngest version of Chiron made me laugh, cry, sad, and angry, and left me wondering if I’ve seen this much intimacy between Black man and Black boy on screen before. I know I have (Antwone Fisher, The Wire, even Roots comes to mind), but on-screen doesn’t reflect this anti-stereotypical slice of truth nearly as often as it should.
Yet I was also not as impressed as I expected to be. Not because I didn’t like the performances — I loved them. I thought every actor in the film was legit, every scene was moving in some way. Naomie Harris I’ve been fond of for years, André Holland and Janelle Monáe’s work I already knew, and Trevante Rhodes and Barry Jenkins, well, the two need bigger platforms for doing more great work. Moonlight wasn’t a film. It was a collage, a kaleidoscope of precious moments, blood-churning episodes, and tender images. Jenkins’ treatment of coming-of-age, Black boyhood into manhood, and Black masculinity, hypermasculinity, and vulnerability was avant-garde.
Still, I felt like I’d seen Moonlight before. Or, really, lived parts of Moonlight in my own past. No, I did not befriend an older, Afro-Cuban crack dealer in 1990s Miami, have a drug-addicted, abusive mother, or have a group of kids chase me around and beat me up off and on for ten years. But I didn’t look at the world the same way as my peers. I didn’t sound like a Noo Yawker, walk and talk and code switch like Denzel Washington, or try to fit in like so many of my 616 neighbors and my Mount Vernon school mates during my growing up years. And I paid for it, dearly, with few friends before I turned eleven, and no friends in the six years before I went off to the University of Pittsburgh.
But on Chiron and that most pernicious issue of hypermasculinity, the need to be hard all the time, I’ve been there too. I’d been called “faggot” (or in my father’s case, “faggat”) enough times to occasionally question my own sexual orientation growing up. My senior year at MVHS one day, I hit a three-run homer during a softball game in gym class. It wasn’t the first time I’d done that. But for one Jamaican dude, me drilling a ball 350 feet off his slow fastball was an affront. He called me a “faggot” after the game, and threatened to wait for me after school with a machete to chop me, adding “bumbaclot mon” at the end of his threat. I left school as normal and waited for him. He was lucky he didn’t show up that day.
You see, my rage didn’t need years to build up. All before I’d finally lose it one day, and take out a bully with a wooden chair and break it across his back, like the way Chiron did at the end of II of Moonlight. I didn’t have bullies at school per se. There were a couple I dealt with at 616, but they weren’t regular. Many folks would make a crack, but generally left me along. Any bullying I faced in high school was completely random and momentary, because I stood up for myself. Because if I could face down a six-foot-one, Isshin-ryn black belt of an abuser in my idiot stepfather Maurice, a stupid football player was gonna get hurt trying to hurt me.
No, the bullying I faced was in middle school, from a bunch of overwhelmed and racist Italian classmates in Humanities. I’ve named them in Boy @ The Window and here in this blog before. Alex, Anthony N., Andrew, Anthony Z., etc, the Italian Club. That things were much, much worse at home meant that I saw them as background noise. There was always a part of me, though, that had enough rage, even in seventh grade, to take a desk and smash Anthony N.’s head in with it until his fuckin’ Italian brains spread out all over the floor and walls!
I ended up beating up a wannabe bully in JD that year instead. I won kufi battles in eighth and ninth grade. I wore a blank face that most of my more dumb ass classmates interpreted as a smile. I made plans to get out, because I never wanted to fit in. I was already awake, coping with the day-to-day, but in it for the long-term. I had that President Barack Obama, audacity-of-hope-beyond-failure, beyond reality thing goin’. When I saw Chiron as played by Ashton Sanders, I wanted to hug him, beat up his bullies for him, and tell him that you can love who you want to love, even if they never love you back. And to always, always be your best self, and not some “I don’t want to feel pain again” version.