As a Black gay man, “Moonlight” is the most important movie of the decade

Moonlight has all the elements of a beautiful film. Its fluid continuity is trancelike: watching it is like swimming down a long river where the water pulls you gently through its banks. The visuals are stunning: the way dark skin catches the light, glimmering and winking back as characters move back and forth across the screen. The story is complex: a visual portrait of a young Black man, internally conflicted over ideas about love, friendship and identity.

But it’s not just a beautiful film.

You see, Moonlight is a mirror. It’s an unpolished, unabashed reflection of the grave realities of a young, Black gay boy. That boy can be seen everywhere—sitting in a classroom, playing football on the high school varsity team or sitting at a desk in an office somewhere in a financial district, musing over numbers.

For myself, the boy I saw was me.

There was no single moment in my childhood where I realized I was gay (my mother would argue that she knew it when I first tied my head with a bath towel and sang Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like a Woman”). All I knew growing up was that I was a man. That I was a Black man. Being those two things, there couldn’t be any space for being gay.

I played a plethora of sports throughout my youth—basketball, swimming, soccer, track and field, even some summers at a local tennis camp. I heard all the locker room talk, saw all the semi-nude photos on broken iPhone screens, felt the bubbling testosterone and toxic masculinity. I heard the laughter, watched the public exchanging of private videos showing bodies coming together in acts I didn’t recognize.

Like so many others, I struggled from childhood all throughout high school to understand who I was.

Being gay is hard. Any gay kid will tell you about the constant fear of being outed, about thinking your body is your enemy, about being called names or being bullied for something so completely out of your hands. Being Black and gay is even harder, I think.

Black men are consistently hypermasculinized and sexualized within the media sphere. So often we’re often discussed as sexual objects, reduced to our endowment or physical capabilities. If a Black man isn’t athletic, is he really Black? If he’s timid or gentle, is he really Black?

I struggled for a long time with the conflicting ideas of being masculine and being Black and being gay. No handbook exists on how to navigate this reality—on how to be all three at once. Films didn’t do much either—the closest option was Brokeback Mountain, where a tortured relationship between two white gay men ends with one ultimately dying.

So often gay characters are the comic relief, the peripheral characters, the one-dimensional characters plagued by the girls who befriend them on account of their gayness (see GBF or Mean Girls). The problem is that these characters aren’t realistic. They aren’t relatable. These characters are just that: characters. Gay culture in the movie industry is overwhelmingly and unbearably white.

The Stonewall uprising and ensuing gay liberation movement never would have happened without brown and black transwomen and drag queens. And yet, when the movie Stonewall was released, all we saw was a film following the fictional story of how a white gay teenager ultimately started the gay revolution.

Gay lives are racially coded and films about revolutions started by coloured people are white-washed; the chance to make films about powerful gay icons are squandered by the film industry and its need to wash things out.

Moonlight was none of these things. Instead, it was an unfiltered contemplation on masculinity, on fatherhood, on poverty, on sexuality, on the complexities of blackness. Moonlight is an all-black universe. It’s a magnificent and inspirational story I can finally identify with. It’s a film that shows my reality, that shows the realities of so many Black and brown boys everywhere. It’s the first film I’ve watched that’s truly made me feel seen, the first that made me feel represented in a way that wasn’t as an athlete, criminal or homicide victim.

While I might not be Chiron, I certainly understand his struggle, and I’m proud the world might finally understand it, too.