Moonlight & The Gay Coming Of Age Narrative

Queer movies are always about coming out

Even if the movie isn’t a “coming out story,” there is always an explanation, a revelation, a sharing that, “I am queer and I want you to know.” This can be at the climax or the low boil of the entire film and—whether positive or negative—this admitting of being an other is what makes these films compelling all around. It’s what tickles LGBT people to see and draws in curious straight people who may or may not have been the listener in a situation like this.

These movies are about acknowledging the space between the personal—accepting your sexuality, exploring your sexuality, intellectually and spiritually adopting or denying your new identity and community, etc.—and the public, coming out to friends and family, understanding how your queerness fits into society, working to survive in a culture that does or does not accept you, etc. These are the basics of queer narratives in the literal sense. These are the overt or subtle plot lines that make them a “gay movie.”

This has been on the mind since seeing Moonlight a few weeks ago, Barry Jenkins‘ 2016 queer masterpiece. The movie is based on Tarrell Alvin McCraney‘s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue which tells the coming of age story of Chiron, a sensitive, quiet child who grows into a hardened tough guy after queer experiences and tendencies push him to rebel against himself. It’s a contemporary American drama that, while sad, isn’t steeped in tragedy: it’s a hopeful story. It points to a group whose coming out and queer stories are underrepresented and shares it in such a direct, loving way. It’s a very carefully crafted film. It’s the type of movie experience that is so taut that you have little room to ask questions: it is a singular movie.

NOTE: Some spoilers ahead about the movie Moonlight.


What was most striking about the film in relationship to queer films is that the handling of the “coming out” is a bit of a revelation. In most movies, it’s all about the reaction to one’s queer status. That the basis for tragedy. Moonlight isn’t dissimilar in the rising and falling tension all being framed by queerness, whether embraced or not. Where the film differentiates itself is in the handling of “being gay” as it relates to the world. Unlike Brokeback Mountain—a gay masterpiece that essentially tells audiences not to come out because it will ruin your life—Moonlight walks in a different direction. It’s subtle. There’s an understated quality to the handling of the multiple coming outs that defy the entire canon of gay cinema.

This happens in three parts, in each act of the film, in ways that step in and out of the queer cinema narrative. In the first act, young Chiron (“Little,” played by Alex Hibbert) asks Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) what the word “faggot” means. Juan’s handling of the situation is infused with intense understanding of Chiron’s young subtext and of his future. There is no table flipping questioning of who the child is: there’s a leveling, a fatherlike compassion that every LGBT audience member wishes that they had when they were confused after being repeatedly called words like that.

In the second act, high school aged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) engage in the film’s sole explicitly sexual encounter. The moment is a complete washing over of discovery. Every queer person has had this experience too, when you unknowingly back into an alternative sex situation that feels both right and wrong. Despite knowing that people may not accept this, Chiron and Kevin engage with each other and don’t walk away guilty or angry or ashamed but with coy smiles and hopes that they will meet up again. This, too, is an entirely too real feeling. It’s like a mole on the face of every LGBT person.

The final act builds on these previous two moments, where the now tough Chiron (“Black,” played by Trevante Rhodes) has evolved into a drug dealing shell of muscles formed in reaction to so many people calling him faggot and pushing him away from what he might actually be. The film concludes with a lovely reconnection between Chiron and Kevin that is infused with such subtle romance that it might break you into hundreds of teardrops: the two reconnect with each other, Chiron confessing that Kevin was his first and only same sex encounter, they resume where they left off, leaving the film with the uplifting conclusion that things are going to change for the better.

This ending, this positive moment of acceptance and (literal) embrace, is what makes the film a much different queer narrative than most. The final few minutes of queer films are almost always marked by something awful: you find out that Jack Twist was the victim of a hate crime and Ennis Del Mar lives a lonely life longing for him; Lana Tisdel leaves town after Brandon Teena has been murdered; Venus Xtravaganza is found dead, murdered by a John; Harvey Milk is assassinated; George Falconer dies of a heart attack; The Boys In The Band realize that they will never truly find love or acceptance but only continued grief in being gay. It’s all the same.

Outside of Toddy Haynes’ Carol and the lovingly eye locked romantic close, most lauded queer films are all about the tragedy and eventual death of some sort of queerness. The denouement isn’t about acceptance or coping but affirmation that “those like us” always die at the hands of society. We will never truly be happy. We will always be lost and alone. That’s why these movies are so sad and frustrating and entirely too real because that is how it often feels living a queered life.

Moonlight strays from this. Like Carol, perhaps a product of a more accepting and hopeful society, the ending isn’t necessarily defined but it doesn’t land with the suggestion that someone like Chiron is a societal outcast prepared to be pushed into a casket. That’s important. All these stories hit “too close to home” for queer persons and it’s uplifting to see a story where we’re represented as people who survive because, well, we do. Especially considering queer African American stories are few and far between and rarely given the due that something like Moonlight has gotten, this is an unrivaled triumph.

Queer movies are always about coming out and dealing with one’s sexuality or gender. That doesn’t mean they have to be about death but, inevitably, they always end up walking into a rainbow grave. Moonlight is important for many reasons, almost too many to count. One of them is that it is real. One is that it is hopeful. The movie is unrivaled and, to understand why, you have to look at the other films like it that we as a society have been treated to. That is helpful in seeing how bright the light glows in the darkness.

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