Silent and Visible: Queer Affect in Moonlight
If one was to revisit the 2016 Academy Awards, wherein the clumsy, on-stage miscommunication lead to the false announcement of front-running, romance-musical La La Land as Best Picture, instead of actual winner Moonlight, it would be difficult to ignore its political significance, that which was initially glossed over by the thrill of such a mishap. While it was seemingly accidental, or at most a coincidence, one has since been able to recognise the distinctions between the two films and why this arc of injustice and vindication is significant regarding their respective subject matter.
If Hollywood were to design the blueprint for an award-winning film, it is not wildly inappropriate to suggest that it would rather formulaically generate one of the structure and production of La La Land. It is just one figurehead in an abundance of kindred, high-budget romantic dramas which circulate production studios, sacrificially displacing narratives of queer and BIPOC identities. However, against all odds, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was decided by the Academy as the Best Picture, overriding the formula and betraying expectation. Moonlight doesn’t demonstrate action, but entrapment; it doesn’t demonstrate white heterosexuality, but black homosexuality; its protagonist is not vocal, but silent.
Though it may be pedantic, or trivial, to assess Moonlight within the context of what was essentially a television blunder, the distinctions between the two films are microcosmic of a cultural consciousness at large. Moonlight‘s triumph over its cinematic opposite illuminates just how, unfortunately, innovative and previously unvoiced its subject matter is. It is held in tension with and works against both cinematic and cultural hegemony through social action, such as visibility and silence, which actively thematise and represent black queerness. Jenkins has claimed, ‘we went out and made this thing about ourselves expecting that no one would see it’, illuminating the very essence of visible and invisible narratives that Moonlight came to reflect.
Little: Silent and Visible
Alex R. Hibbert as Little in Moonlight
Committed to narratively and intimately following protagonist Chiron and his subjectivities, Moonlight is episodically dissected into three chronological embodiments, all of which demonstrate the complexities of queerness not simply over time, but through an ageing, developing body. Thus it is entirely appropriate that the film first exhibits childhood experiences of Chiron, ‘Little’, as he begins to navigate his identity, framed with an opening title card followed by an atmospheric softness that implies retrospect and a sense of pastness. Though it is unclear at any point who we, as audience, are identified as representing, there is certainly stylistic, thematic signals of reflection and representation that imply Chiron’s present position is alongside the audience, looking back at a now distant embodiment. And it is through its initial tonality of memory and documentation of feeling that the construction of the film begins its affective turn, wherein memory is formulated through embodiment and experience of affected, physical experience rather than an abstract, categorised identity.
Moonlight’s introduction of Chiron as mute, running from tormentors and taking refuge in a dilapidated apartment block ensures that the narrative is opened in such a way that inspires an inscription upon Chiron’s behaviour; upon his vulnerable, voiceless body. Where Chiron doesn’t speak, the audience begins to simultaneously focus upon his affectations and ventriloquise the words he could have said. This nuanced simultaneity, of reading the body and inscribing its speech, is representative of the realities of interrupted and voiceless queer black identities; spoken for, spoken over, or silenced entirely. Thus within its construction, Moonlight meta-cinematically recognises its audience as endeared, or perhaps even frustrated, with Chiron’s voicelessness. This interactivity that the film promotes, outside of itself and into the hands of the audience, recognises the voiceless reality of a queer black identity. We as audience may not silence Chiron ourselves, or rather we may long for him to speak, but nevertheless, we are reminded of the cinematic and political structures of power and language; which voices are amplified and which are not.
Alex R. Hibbert as Little in Moonlight
Chiron’s silence, though born out of vulnerability, transforms into and exhibits extralinguistic body language. Within this transformation, from the silent body to the affective body, notions of queerness become connected to and evidenced by Chiron’s interactivity with those around him. Historically, there has often been a recognisable stoicism attached to queer identities, a self-willed silence that can either ‘pass’ individuals, concealing their queerness, or, in its affect and reliance on the visual, exhibit it. Scholarship determines that queer identities exercise affect, the pre-cognitive, and all that transcends language in relation to an embodied experience. Although Chiron’s identity, at first as a child, is perhaps more complexly affected than his queer adult body, his silence is certainly self-willed and emerges out of protection for a queer identity; perhaps an identity not yet fully self-aware, but one that is recognised by Chiron and, to his detriment, by those who torment him.
In fact, it is Chiron’s silence that casts his queer body as hyper-visible. Though his silence may represent a longing to conceal his identity or repress it into nonexistence, it actually becomes a medium for an affected, embodied language of its own. While this affect is first introduced in childhood, it continues throughout the course of the film as a vehicle to measure Chiron’s queerness and queer navigation, affirmed by his ageing, enfleshed body.
Chiron: Structures of Queerness and Black Masculinity
Ashton Sanders as Chiron in Moonlight
Chiron’s identity is adaptationally tethered to various, interconnected social structures which dictate his experience as a queer black adolescent. His blackness is tethered to his homosexuality, his adolescence to his immobility and entrapment. This connectivity is evidenced in the second chapter of the film, understood here as the second embodiment, wherein Chiron is adolescent and his sexuality is not isolated to its own formation but entirely connected to his racial identity. Russell K. Robinson in Racing the Closet articulates just some of the many structural forces at work against Chiron as not only queer, but queer and black: claiming that ‘restrictions on the ‘out’ black man include, (1) his racial group is in the minority; (2) men of his race are less likely to be out; (3) there is a substantially smaller proportion of black men who are not incarcerated or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system; and (4) he must navigate racialised expectations, including gendered sex-role expectation’.
It is not without significance that Moonlight presents Chiron’s first sexual experience as with a self-identified bisexual black male, Kevin. While Kevin accurately represents Chiron’s foil, he is vocal and confident, and within a dream-sequence is seen to have sex with a girl, he more closely represents race relations between two black, queer men. In a later scene, Kevin is pressured by school bully Terrel to haze and beat down Chiron until he is unable to move. This violence captures toxic masculinity with a specific affectation, as between two, closeted sexual partners. As a sequence, it is almost folkloric in its barbarity and symbolism, and it certainly speaks to structural violence in operation against black queer men.
André Holland as Kevin in Moonlight
Though blackness as a construct is a historic product of white violence, it plays a significant role within the violent masculinities present in the film, and these masculinities are entirely affected by and irremovable from the structures of queerness. Chiron is bullied because his queerness provokes others; “it’s the way he walks”. Chiron’s queer visibility paired with protective, resilient silence is what positions him, not Kevin, as an anomaly; a target; a provocation. Thus to separate black masculinity from queerness would be irresponsible; for Eldrige Cleaver, ‘the black male homosexual becomes the locus for anxiety around not only sexuality but more specifically around a Black masculinity in crisis’.
Black: the Queer Criminal
Trevante Rhodes as Black, André Holland as Kevin in Moonlight
Black, the final chapter of Moonlight, signals the third embodiment, Chiron’s black, queer, incarcerated body. It’s significant that with age and consequence, from reactive violence to Terrel’s torment, Chiron’s adulthood is framed as criminal. There are, of course, immediate connections between queerness and criminality, whether it be the queer criminal himself, the homophile, the sexual deviant, or the black queer man who, compared to white queer men, endures an unstable identification of queerness. He who often, more safely, identifies as “something else” rather than homosexual, for homosexual encounters were seen to fracture an already ambiguous foundation of black masculinity.
Though perhaps Moonlight leans onto tropes of black criminality that are otherwise offensive in their repetition and fetishisation, its interests are directed towards reconfiguring and historicising these realities with an awareness of queer visibility. Chiron’s incarceration, of course, represents mass incarceration, and metaphorically, it represents a punishment for not simply his blackness in its context, but in the film’s chronology and causality, for his queerness. While it casts Chiron’s queerness as hyper-visible in high school, Moonlight is able to navigate blackness with equal vivacity, in spite of its all-black cast. Its absence of whiteness could have somehow sanitised the violence of black realities, but it instead boosts its exploration of queerness. Out of necessity, they are bound together and present a specific masculinity that is not only nascent on film but, of course, lived, embodied and enfleshed.
Naomie Harris as Paula (Chiron’s mother) in Moonlight
In connection to class, Russel K. Robinson writes, ‘men in lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to have to depend on heterosexual, and likely homophobic, relatives and friends for material support.’ While perhaps Chiron’s neglectful mother rather problematically represents a dangerous stereotype of black single mothers, she perhaps more functionally individualises Chiron against the backdrop of unstable domesticity, since the home is where he first lacks verbal companionship and emotional support. In this sense, Chiron’s turn towards the affect was vital. In reuniting with Kevin at the end of the film, generating an openness to its conclusion, Chiron’s silence becomes fully affected and mobilised. There is an extralinguistic exchange between two queer men, and his queerness is not simply visible but recognised.
Trevante Rhodes as Black, André Holland as Kevin in Moonlight
Moonlight is committed to conveying a complex and intersectional experience of queerness. Chiron’s silence, a vehicle for affect, is enmeshed with his black identity. His navigation of an embodied experience that is so structurally and historically contested is left open, unfinished. There is a sense of continuation once the film ends, an uncertainty of Chiron’s direction, and it is through silence and visibility that Chiron’s experience of his identity is adapted, articulated, and embodied. And it is his silence, that which was initially protective, that enables an extralinguistic form of communication that is shared between queer persons.
Alex R. Hibbert as Little and Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight
Moonlight exhibits something rare, precious even, through its moments wherein speech simply does not qualify. It captures something that defies the medium of text and necessitates a visual medium, to express the affected, visible, and challenging. Moonlight‘s navigation of queerness is embodied by Chiron, and its intimacy is carried through its mood and tonality, that which is entirely characteristic of affected, subjective experience. As Jenkins has written, ‘we weren’t writing the story on paper; we were painting with moving images.’