Moonlight and Masculinity

Just saw Moonlight the critically acclaimed  Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning film.  I don’t intend to be a plot spoiler or movie critic but to look at the characters from a masculinity perspective.  After the movie I read many of the highly rated critic reviews and was struck by the frequently mentioned comments about how the movie’s sub text dealt with the broader theme of masculinity . It does, but only in the shadow or negative aspects of masculinity and in some sense excuses the worst of a man’s behavior by attributing it to racism and poverty.

The story begins with a boy, referred to as Little, being raised by a single mom in a Miami ghetto who also happens to be a crack addict and sometime prostitute.  No father is mentioned and it appears that the mother has no idea which of her many “boyfriends” fathered the child.  Little is portrayed as soft, shy and sad.  The story line seems to attribute these characteristics to sexual ambiguity rather than the absence of a father or positive male influence.  Instead of a dad Little winds up being mentored by Juan a local drug dealer.  Wonderful role model –  diamond studded ear bling, a tricked out car and a reputation as a hard guy who also happens to sell drugs to the boy’s mother.   Unfortunately Juan is portrayed as a mostly positive influence for the boy.

A rather disingenuous snippet of dialogue  occurs when Little, who was bullied and called a faggot in school, asks Juan about what faggot means.  Juan responds with an explanation that this is a term to put down gay people and is unacceptable.   On the surface this would appear as a constructive intervention by Juan.  However, I seriously doubt that, the hard core inner city African – American drug dealer would  offer such an enlightened view of accepting homosexuality.

The next segment of the movie shows the boy, now referred to by his given name Chiron,  as a teenager attending high school.  He remains shy, physically vulnerable and a victim of bullying.  Again another aspect  of masculinity is on display as we see Chiron beaten by Kevin.  Kevin is a childhood friend who is told to beat on Chiron or he himself will become the victim of  the gang.    This is the same friend, who without explaining the coincidence, he previously met one night on a deserted  beach where they engaged in a homosexual encounter.

The last segment portrays the main character now an adult presumably in his late 20’s, referred to as Black, released from prison and who has become an imposing physical specimen living in Atlanta and selling drugs much like his early childhood mentor.  He also drives a tricked out car and prominently displays a gold grill.  On a whim Black returns to Miami and meets up with his old friend Kevin.  Kevin also did jail time and is a divorced father.   The movie ends with an intimate scene between Kevin and Black.

The bottom line is that none of the characters in any fashion exemplify anything close to the best of masculinity.   Juan makes his way in the world by dealing drugs.  Adolescent boys are portrayed as thugs and bullies.   Kevin, the main character’s friend and eventual lover, has served jail time and is divorced and separated from his own son.  The protagonist now a grown man emerges as an ex-convict drug dealer just like his childhood mentor.   A bleak picture of masculinity that reflects the reality for many of our youth who grow up un-fathered and marginalized by poverty and failed institutions.   A contrasting story was told in the 1991 film “Boyz in the hood.”  In that film the realities of poverty, racism  and adolescent violence was not sugar coated.  However, the fact that the main character had an involved father paved the way for the boy to choose a positive path.  We need more examples in popular media about how characters representing the best of masculinity can benefit our youth.

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