I would like to start this off by making it clear that I am a queer Black man. So I may be a little biased here. But as a queer Black man, I have found that my representation in most of the things I love and care so much about as a geek is little to none. And it’s becoming more and more alarming as time goes on.
This has been a lit year for Black nerds (in terms of entertainment, at least). The hotly anticipated Marvel character Black Panther came to the big screen finally in Captain America: Civil War, after fans had been clamoring for his appearance for decades, and he’s getting his own movie soon (speaking of which, the cast of said movie gets more and more lit every day with the recent additions of Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett). Luke Cage got a fire TV series that depicted a bulletproof Black man living in Harlem. And even non comic-book related content has been killing it: Black women have dominated the music industry with Lemonade and A Seat at the Table; Black families have dominated television with Empire, Power and Queen Sugar; and portrayals of Black people are getting more and more intersectional, complex and dynamic (Insecure, Chewing Gum, etc).
You will notice that most of these projects are powered for and by Black people. As is Moonlight, one of the first films about what it means to be Black, queer and poor. In fact, Moonlight is the movie that got me thinking about this.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was my favorite film of 2016. It made me cry, harder than I’ve ever cried watching a film before. I rarely cry during films, and if I do it’s usually a few tiny tears, but I was full-on bawling watching this film. I saw it days ago and still, I’m haunted by its beauty. In my opinion, it’s one of the best films of all time. The movie depicts queer Black men in a raw, nuanced light that’s way too unfamiliar for comfort. They’re allowed to have emotions. They make mistakes. They feel. Their pain, their rawness, their hurt. All of that and more was explored in Moonlight. Not to forget the genius script, breathtaking cinematography, stunning direction and amazing performances from the cast.
I walked out of Moonlight wondering why I was so moved by the film. Was it because I simply appreciate good storytelling? Or was there a deeper reason?
Upon thinking about it, I think the answer is this: it was the first time I had seen queer Black men portrayed with such care. Often in popular culture they’re a stereotype. They’re the best friend of the show’s main character; they only care about sex and don’t have any emotions; they’re only there for tokenism and representation. But in Moonlight, they were real people. And it got me wondering: why isn’t this the case in all entertainment?
I’ve been cheering for Black women this year with all the lovely content they get, but I’ve been doing it from the sidelines. Of course, I was invited to the party because I’m Black. But the dancing and the fun isn’t being had by me; it’s being had by Black women. And that’s amazing. They deserve it. But I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to party with them. Or, even further, to be the focus of the party. For the party to center around me.
I found myself reaching, looking for Black male characters that could be revealed to be gay in primary entertainment, and I couldn’t come up with much. There are plenty of gay characters in comics. There are plenty of characters who are rumored to be gay, but haven’t been openly confirmed by their creators. But I want to see a big franchise feature queer men of color and treat them with as much dignity, respect and admiration as the straight characters are being treated with.
Hollywood only has to look at how well Moonlight is doing in its per-theater average to know that there is an audience for this kind of storytelling. And as much as white, straight fans can protest and boycott, their social media words mean little to nothing. The Force Awakens, a major blockbuster starring a woman and two men of color, sits on top of the highest-grossing films of all time list at number 3. Could that just be because of the power of Star Wars? Sure. But if people were really that strongly against diverse casting, they wouldn’t have gone to see the film in droves. And they did, as it made over $2 billion.
Queer Black men see films, too. We are part of the backbone of so much culture, of so many slang terms and words that people have consistently appropriated and forgotten where they got it from. We see things, we hear things, and we feel things. And so much of the problem with Hollywood has been its refusal to acknowledge the people who support its films in the first place.
If Moonlight wins a crap ton of Academy Awards, I’ll be happy. The gorgeous, sweeping film deserves it. But something tells me that will be the end of Hollywood’s search for diversity. They’ll think they’ve placated political correctness and drained the well dry, and they’ll move back on to other kinds of stories – stories far too exclusive.
But what I would really love to see happen is to see the success of Moonlight transfer over into other mediums. Black queer men exist right now in popular culture. There’s Jamal Lyon, on Empire; there’s brilliant work being done on the Internet for Black queer men with Sean Anthony’s No Shade web series. But I employ you: think of more than ten Black queer characters in the past few years who had substantial roles. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? Because the roles are almost nonexistent.
We, as a society, need to hold Hollywood to create more roles like the ones in Moonlight. We need to make sure that we demand our representation, and that when someone creates something as haunting and poetic as Moonlight, we make sure it makes as much money as possible so that we can get more like it. And most importantly: we need to live in a world where I can watch TV and film and see that characters like me matter as much as straight white male characters.
All I’m saying is: Moonlight scratched an itch I’ve been having for a long time. But it also made me hungry for that itch to be scratched again, in every franchise I love. Come on, Hollywood. You’ve got to do better.