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The story of Chiron in Moonlight is told in three different sections. The first section is “Little,” the second section is “Chiron,” and finally, the third section is “Black.” Each section shows the progression of Chiron’s journey with black masculinity and his growth through his extended kinship network. I selected this film because I feel as though it covered a part of the black family that is not often discussed, or is viewed in a negative light in many African-American households, being gay. Watching the journey of Chiron discovering his sexuality and being ridiculed is gut-wrenching but relatable for many black boys growing up and necessary to show. Also, to see a grown black male be the tender soul that is guiding him through it was a positive narrative that needed to be shown.
An extended kinship network is a family that doesn’t follow the norm of a nuclear family. Essentially, it is having family members who aren’t related to you through blood. This is demonstrated through Chiron’s relationship with Juan and his sister Teresa. With Chiron’s mother being on drugs, they take him under their wing and become the family he has never had. This is very important in this film because this extended family helps shape Chiron into the man he becomes by the end of the movie. Masculinity also plays a very important role in the movie, as the main character, Chiron, battles with the stereotypes of being a masculine man in his community while also trying to figure out his own identity outside of the stereotypes that surround him.
How it works
In the first part of the movie, we follow “Little,” who is plagued by bullies who don’t understand him due to him not fitting into their standards of what a male should be. We learn early on that “Little” isn’t what society would deem as masculine. From how he carries himself to his physique, he sticks out from the norm, and he pays for it. Little is extremely petite and skinny for a boy his age, and his dark skin complexion does him no favors. Chiron’s personality doesn’t line up with the “Boys Will be Boys” narrative that a majority of young men are raised with (Leavell), and due to that, Chiron just doesn’t fit well with the people surrounding him. This is also shown through Terrell and his crew who outright torment Chiron due to him not fitting into what they believe is masculine. Since Chiron is smaller, with a squeaky voice, they take any opportunity they get to establish their dominance over him through physical and emotional abuse.
Chiron’s teenage years are not any better than his childhood years: he is still repeatedly targeted by Terrell and his crew and continues to suffer physical and emotional abuse from not only them but also his mother. As he grows older, another issue arises. He realizes that he is a gay male. In his community, being a gay man is seen as unmasculine, and people perceive it as the worst possible thing that can happen to a man, especially a black man. Where they live, black “masculinity is a rigid, unflinching scale – hard, aggressive, and emotionally ambiguous, being the only acceptable form of behavior among black males in Chiron’s peer group” (Watts). Chiron becomes fed up with being tormented by Terrell and confronts him in class, eventually lashing out and assaulting him. From this point forward, he begins to transition into what his tormentors made him believe was normal. Ultimately Chiron chooses to conform to the stereotypical image of a black male, becoming a muscular drug dealer, a stark contrast to the vulnerable kid he was in childhood. The oppression of black Americans, forced into impoverished and violent areas, contributes to these stereotypes. With America’s history with African Americans, it created this exoticized image of the African American man. Nonetheless, he remains the same person underneath, adjusting his exterior to align with tradition.
At the beginning of the film, we are also introduced to Juan, a drug dealer from Chiron’s neighborhood who takes him under his wing. Juan serves as a role model for Chiron but challenges the traditional roles of masculinity. Initially, he seems to fit into the black male stereotype; however, he eventually exhibits a gentler side of masculinity. Juan’s masculinity does not just lie in the toxic parts where a man is expected to be tough, unaffected by any form of hardship or challenge. Many men feel as though a masculine man cannot feel or display emotion. Juan, however, grasps that masculinity runs deeper, there are many different forms of a man. From the images we see of Juan – a tall, muscular, African American man who is a drug dealer – one might assume that he is affirming the traditional masculine role that society has created and that many black men fall into. In my opinion, we associate black masculinity with criminality because, during slave times, slaves who were attempting to escape their bondage would rebel against their masters. Their rebellion earned them a stigma as criminals, a label still in use today. Yet, we soon discover that this is not the case for Juan.
When it came to Chiron, Juan could tell he was different. But rather than treating him like he wasn’t normal, he became the father figure that Chiron needed. Juan taught Chiron life skills; for example, he took Chiron to learn how to swim. While teaching him, Juan cradled Chiron’s head tenderly and told him to relax. Juan was not just teaching Chiron how to swim, he was teaching him how to survive and thrive in a society that didn’t understand him. Juan says in this scene, “Ok. Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won’t let you go. Hey man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You’re in the middle of the world.” This demonstrates a typical feminine or motherly act, often frowned upon by other men. The refusal to allow men to be intimate or nurturing has its repercussions. Without the ability to properly process emotions, men often keep them bottled up, which can lead to emotional issues and potential violence, perpetuating the violent stereotype of a black male. Yet, for Juan, such behavior was typical, as he constantly defied societal expectations. Juan shattered stereotypes, for example, taking Chiron under his wing, an act not typically expected of an African American male. There is a powerful, yet simple exchange between Chiron’s mother and Juan, where she asked, “You gonna raise my son?” and Juan replied, “You gonna raise him?” This stood out to me because according to societal stereotypes, black males often abandon their children, not wanting the responsibility. For a black male to step up in a child’s life, particularly one that is not his own, was a major feat in the film.
From his first encounter with Juan, Chiron clearly admired and aspired to be like him, for Juan represented what society would deem normal. Chiron’s emulation of Juan resulted from his life decisions and restrictions, both economic and educational. Growing up with a drug-addicted mother, Chiron lacked any male influence in his life other than Juan. Boys often look up to whomever they see as a father figure, whether it be an uncle or someone else who shows them how to be a man. As we witnessed Chiron’s progression to “Black,” it was evident he molded himself into his interpretation of Juan. Although this vision was flawed, Juan’s character was more complex than the image “Black” inferred. On the surface, Juan may have appeared to be extremely masculine and potentially dangerous, given his involvement in drug dealing. However, peeling back the layers reveals a man who defies stereotypes. Regrettably, Chiron chose to emulate the worst aspects of Juan’s character, believing these traits define a black man. If Chiron had dug deeper, he would have realized the importance of allowing oneself to feel and the value of authenticity.
Throughout the movie Moonlight, Chiron’s masculinity transforms from that of a petite, shallow child into a powerful drug dealer, mirroring the stereotype embodied by his mentor Juan. While Juan attempted to impart to Chiron that life offers far more than the role of an aggressive drug dealer, Chiron ultimately succumbed to society’s stigmatization of black masculinity in their community. The film sheds light on the experiences of many black families by portraying the harsh reality they often face. These negative stereotypes are foisted upon us, with society paradoxically expecting a different outcome. It is this pressure that pushes many black men into prison, leading to black families raising their children in fractured households and within communities that are not always favorable. Many black families include people who are not related by blood but who are still considered close family members. This is vividly depicted in Moonlight through the influence of Juan and Teresa, who serve as a surrogate maternal figure in Chiron’s upbringing. Raising a black family in America often requires a village to overcome the oppression and inequality encountered. While this may deviate from society’s stereotype of a traditional family, the love encountered is just as profound.
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