The Unicorn Scale: Moonlight

By Muhammad Modibo Shareef

March 23, 2020



Photo credit: Image/A24

James Baldwin, the American novelist and essayist, examined social injustices and the psychological effects they have on people regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or class. Baldwin believed that love and radical actions were the antidotes to social ills. He wrote, "Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within." Love is an essential component of life, but what happens when an individual does not receive love from the people around them? What happens when a person cannot live their truth due to social norms? Barry Jenkins' Moonlight (2016) is a brilliant masterpiece that answers these questions. Jenkins' film explores the themes of masculinity, same-sex desires, drug addiction, and poverty.

Chiron sitting in his car with hands on the wheel looking to his side at someone.

Moonlight is a coming-of-age movie based on the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is divided into three acts and tells the story of Chiron (Trevante Rhodes as an adult, Ashton Sanders as a teen), a young boy growing up in Liberty City, Miami. Chiron experiences severe bullying, isolation, and neglect due to his sexuality. He is further isolated because his relationship with his mother is dysfunctional, mainly because of her drug use. Eventually, Chiron develops a father-son relationship with a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who is also the neighborhood drug dealer. Early in the film, we see Chiron also develop a bond with a boy named Kevin (André Holland as an adult, Jharrel Jerome as a teen), who catalyzes Chiron's realization that he is attracted to men.

Moonlight achieves a milestone by depicting the experience of a queer black man who has to navigate a hypermasculine environment that suffocates him. Beautiful cinematography, brilliant acting, and an elegant score propelled Jenkins' film to win numerous accolades, including the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. Please be warned that SPOILERS are ahead, and if you need it, here is an update on how The Unicorn Scale works.

What I Liked:

One element of Moonlight that stands out is the characters. The film does an excellent job depicting certain archetypes in ways that deviate from your typical Hollywood film. For example, we see a warmhearted and compassionate drug dealer, a single mother who falls victim to the crack-cocaine epidemic, and, most importantly, a confident, sexually fluid character free of any bisexual stereotypes.

Kevin — Chiron's boyhood crush — is a bi man whose sexual attractions gear towards multiple genders. During the second act, Kevin gets detention after being caught having sex with a girl on campus. Later on, Kevin and Chiron have a moment of passion on the beach after Chiron leaves his house due to his mother's drug habits. In the final act, the two men cross paths as adults, and we learn that Kevin has a son from a woman named Samantha. Kevin's presence is crucial throughout the movie because his character helps normalize and validate the existence of bi men. There is no doubt that Chiron, who is presumably gay, is the focus of the film, but people must understand Kevin's significance to the story.

A young Kevin and Chiron sit together at a lot, talking nervously about.

Ever since Alfred Kinsey shocked the world with his groundbreaking research examining human sexual behavior, newer studies have continually revealed that same-sex attraction is more prevalent than assumed and that bisexuality is quite common. However, the media often fails to reflect this reality. Moonlight does an excellent job portraying bisexuality because Kevin's character gives an honest, realistic, and nuanced depiction of a bisexual man.

Another aspect of Moonlight that makes it unique is its portrayal of African-Americans. Hollywood has a history of cementing Black characters in certain clichés that reinforce racist stereotypes and ideologies. Juan is a street drug dealer who offers shelter and comfort to a boy who feels displaced because of his sexuality; Juan's character is a far cry from the typical hardened criminal that Black actors often have to play.

Juan and a young Chiron sit together at a diner while Juan explains something to Chiron.

What I Didn’t Like:

Although there isn't anything in particular that I find wrong in the film, I do want to address an issue that I noticed in the way people perceive it. The critics and the general audience completely ignore the bi aspect of Moonlight. As I mentioned before, Kevin is a bisexual man, but people consider Moonlight a gay film because of the bond between Chiron and Kevin. Jenkins' movie addresses sexual variance within the Black community and how it pertains to masculinity. Therefore, Moonlight is a bi film as much as it is a gay film. Unfortunately, our monosexual-dominant society often silences sexual fluidity.

Juan holding a young Chiron in the water as he lays. Both are smiling.

The Rating:

Moonlight is nothing short of a masterpiece that depicts the struggles of performative masculinity, love, same-sex desires, and isolation in a cohesive manner that plays like a moving painting. Chiron's longing for trust and acceptance, combined with his decision to conform to traditional masculinity, speaks volumes about the human experience and the consequences of policing human desires.

His struggle is relatable to many people, regardless of identity, because many people hide parts of themselves to avoid outside conflict. Moonlight tells Chiron's story adjacent to Kevin (who is a genuine bisexual character) and deserves four unicorns.

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