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'Moonlight': A Retrospective on Barry Jenkins' Masterpiece

Barry Jenkins' masterpiece holds up as the story of a lifetime centered on the intersection of Blackness and gay identity.

Moonlight (2016)

5 / 5
5 / 5

I often speak about the importance of positive representation in films. The joy, validation, and critical examination that comes with seeing yourself onscreen is something that many privileged people take for granted. But rarely does a film go beyond representation and into an emotional resonance that places it in that peculiar art space where I love something that I can not view leisurely. I have only seen Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight once at theaters upon release. Despite owning a digital copy, its release on streaming services, and a coveted spot as one of my most beloved films of all time, I am unable to watch it again in its entirety. It is so emotionally resonant for me that my empathy is incapable of watching it superficially. I know I will feel all the emotional depth of the film EVERY time. This places it in the same league as What’s Love Got To Do With It, The Color Purple, and Lucky (2011). Even at the film theater, my best friend (another Black gay man) squeezed my hand throughout the film, nearly in tears from the nuanced portrayals.

The Question: Are you Black first?

Barry Jenkins filmed Moonlight in three modules named after the childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood of the main protagonist. The brilliance of this film is its argument that Blackness and sexuality are intertwined and inseparable within the intersectionality of Black gay men. This is something I have posited myself countless times in arguments where (mostly) straight Black men and the odd Black Woman attempt the “you are Black” first argument. This tired argument attempts to excise Black LGBTQ+ individuals’ sexuality from them and inspire a racial fealty that often only serves the needs of straight Black men. We are welcomed as voiceless bodies in protests, marches, and financial support for Black politicians and businesses, but otherwise mum is the word. This argument is usually pulled out when something homophobic/transphobic or otherwise discriminatory happens to LGBTQ+ people and Black LGBTQIA+ people object to said treatment (see the awful Dave Chapelle). Moonlight argues that you can not compartmentalize sexuality, it’s not a lifestyle or trendy thing picked up from outside the community (aka the “it’s a white person thing” argument). Rather, I, like Chiron and every other Black gay man, am both Black and gay. Those two identities are who I am in totality. And yet they are both infinite on their own and in combination. Moonlight captures this exquisitely.


Little (Alex Hibbert) is the story of a complicated epidemic. Not of the crack epidemic in 1980s Florida that makes the setting of Moonlight, but rather in the epidemic of fatherless homes in the Black community. This conversation requires nuance. The problem is not some unscientific belief that men are necessary or that Black men are inherently deficient, but rather the loss of income from two partners and the impoverishment and negative socioeconomic consequences for single moms. Simultaneously, the social climate does not provide negative consequences for Black men abandoning their responsibilities, often blaming the parent that stayed. Myths about nonexistent child support and alimony abound and support this epidemic.

Little (L) and Kevin (R) as children.

Thankfully, Jenkins is up to the task. We see the juxtaposition of the drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), hurting his neighborhood by selling drugs. Yet, he becomes the only stable father figure in Little’s life due to his mother being a drug addict. This juxtaposition will not be new to people who have lived in rough areas with people doing what they have to do to survive in predatory capitalism. Little is also bullied for sexuality that he isn’t even aware of yet. This too is a sadly common experience among Black gay men. Completing these contrasting images that explain the intersectionality of his subject, Jenkins uses the beach to conjure more complicated contrasts. Juan helps Little learn to swim, a direct contrast against the stereotype that Black people can’t swim, while also cradling him in a way that draws parallels to Christian baptism. The saint and sinner contrast is a common byline in Little’s module.


Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is the heartbreaking teenage years of the main protagonist. His budding sexuality is juxtaposed against the rough life of a sensitive teen in an unsafe, bully paradise of society’s thrown-away teens. The bullying from the Little module continues here both because of poverty and emerging sexuality, but one bright light in this dark module is his friendship with Kevin. Kevin is the cool guy who secretly hangs out with Chiron. Eventually, Kevin and Chiron begin to explore their budding sexualities. They share a secret sexual rendezvous in a secret place that feels safe. This is shattered when Chiron is bullied at school, and Kevin participates out of social pressure. This pushes Chiron to the edge, and he grabs a chair and bashes his homophobic bully over the head. And I was here for it! But my heart breaks even remembering this scene. This is exactly why I can’t rewatch casually, it hits too close to home.

Chiron (R) and Kevin (L) exploring their budding romance in a secret garden

Jenkins argues here that self-discovery is a violent process for Black gay men. And we are often afforded no safe space for this discovery, as this identity is just another thing to oppress in the eyes of the larger system. Your own community participates in your oppression with the dominant society’s homophobia, while demanding your loyalty in fighting against racism. Moonlight is the cinematic version of ‘make it make sense.’


This module critiques the system that fails impoverished, Black, and/or gay men in the USA. Chiron was bullied relentlessly and was not helped at all by the system, school, or his absentee parents. But the moment he fights back against his bullies, he’s incarcerated. More punitive punishments for a person already mentally exhausted and maligned. Predictably, Black is now a drug dealer much like his role model, Juan, and like society’s pipeline has prescribed from him since his birth and zip code. He is also navigating his fractured relationship with his mom, who is in recovery from drug addiction.

Black and an adult Kevin.

Black is an answer of sorts to the question of “how do hood dudes turn out this way?” Black is now that guy, spinning the block with golds in his mouth, a buffed physique daring anybody to try him, and a mistaken idea that he is now a “man” because of these superficial things. Reuniting with Kevin threatens this, hence the slow burn of their reunion. Jenkins wisely (if visually disappointing) does not wrap this reunion up with a Disney kiss. It’s left ambiguous if they are actually going to be together.

The Answer: I am all my identities and more

Barry Jenkins made a movie for Black gay men. Anyone can enjoy its beautiful cinematography, the deep themes, and layered images, but it is dedicated to his people. It dispels the notion that you can separate our identities. Black gay men are Black men and gay men. We are not either/or, we are both. We struggle the way all Black men struggle with systemic racism and white supremacy. We also struggle the way most LGBTQIA+ people do with issues like patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia. Some Black gay men, despite our outpacing of straight Black men in college enrollment, are from impoverished backgrounds. In other words, we grow up in the same Black communities as other Black people. Moonlight successfully argues that it is a masterpiece in film cinema, the Black film canon specifically, and gay cinema. People almost always exist at intersections, even if they are unaware. Moonlight captures this amazingly.