If you have a heart and can feel, most likely you left Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a brilliant film about exploring the intersections of Blackness and queerness, with tears in your eyes. I cried at the heartbreaking ending, the beautiful way Jenkins wrote the characters’ resolution. But it has come to my attention that there are some people who walked out of Moonlight feeling sad for a different reason.
(If you haven’t seen Moonlight, this is a fair warning: I’m about to dive into spoiler territory, and I don’t want to ruin the movie for anyone. If it’s still playing near you, I strongly urge you fork over the ten dollars to watch it. It’s truly a transformative experience. Barry Jenkins translates playwright Tarrel McCraney’s words beautifully to the big screen. I loved it.)
(Still here? Alright. Let’s get started.)
The movie follows Chiron, a young, poor Black boy living on the outskirts of Miami with his mother, who struggles with crack addiction. In addition to having to deal with the trauma of having a mother who is barely there, Chiron has to deal with and come to terms with his sexuality – he likes boys, and in a world where anything that goes against the patriarchy and heteronormativity is wrong, especially among Black boys, you can see why this might cause problems for him.
I thought that the movie broached this topic beautifully, and I was under the impression that most people were in agreement with me. Apparently, where we diverge is under the name of one character – Kevin.
Kevin is the love interest of Chiron. We see Chiron looking at him suggestively when he’s a child, as if he has a crush on him; we see the two kiss and have a sexual encounter when they’re teenagers; we see Chiron have a wet dream about Kevin, and wake up with a stain on his underwear. As a Black queer man, I’ve been here before. I’ve had feelings for someone who I thought would never pay attention to me, because I was so far out of the realm of typical masculinity and he was so deeply enveloped in it. So this aspect of the film was one of the many things I connected with.
I’ve also seen performative masculinity. I’ve done it myself – and that’s where the discussion about Kevin begins.
Right after Kevin and Chiron have their first awkward, yet steaming sexual encounter, the school’s bullies decide they want to beat up Chiron. In an attempt to drive a wedge between the quickly growing relationship between Chiron and Kevin, they force Kevin to hit him. And he does it – severely wounding Chiron. The following day in school, Chiron attacks one of his bullies, injuring him gravely, and is taken to jail. As he’s shoved into the police car, he glares at Kevin with a hatred so deep, Kevin is forced to look away. They don’t see each other for ten years, but when they do, Chiron is quick to admit to Kevin: “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.”
I’ve seen people say that they disliked Kevin. That the middle section of the film (it’s split into three parts, each detailing a aspect of Chiron’s personality – Little, Chiron and Black) made Kevin unsympathetic, and so the ending didn’t do it for them the way it did it for the rest of us. And to those people, I say: I think you missed the point.
None of these characters were perfect, and that’s what I loved so much about Moonlight. They all had grey areas, and they all had moral codes that sometimes, they didn’t pay any attention to. No one was one-dimensional; everyone felt like a real person, and more than that, like someone I knew in my life.
Handsome, adorable Chiron was quick to anger, and acted more hastily than he should have (though I have to say, I cheered when that bully was knocked out). Kevin performed masculinity at the expense of his new relationship with his friend. Paula, Chiron’s mother, ignored her child and chose crack over him. Juan, the drug dealer who takes in Chiron at the beginning of the film, chooses to continue to sell crack to Paula rather than stopping her from having access to it. Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, has some grey areas to her – rather than doing something to help Paula or reporting her, she continues to let Chiron return home to her. Even Chiron’s bullies don’t feel unrealistic.
I would have been a little upset if Kevin hadn’t hit Chiron in that scene, and here’s why. It would have meant that Jenkins and McCraney were writing him from the perspective of the wistful romantic, and not seeing the story through the harsh lens of reality. In real life, Chiron would’ve gotten his ass kicked. And it wouldn’t have been anything against Chiron. Kevin’s actions were less about Chiron, and more about protecting himself.
Performative masculinity is toxic. It’s a drug. I know, because I’ve found myself caught up in it before. But performative masculinity can also be security. A safe haven. When surrounded by straight men – men who judge you not for the merit of your personality, but for your sexuality or gender expression – performative masculinity can be the only thing that keeps you from getting tormented, beat up, or worse. Killed.
Deep down, in that scene Kevin knew that those boys would have turned on him if he hadn’t fought Chiron. He knew that he would have been the next target, that he would have been the one they’d come after. And in a cold, calculated decision, he chose his safety over his newfound feelings for Chiron. It’s not nice, and Chiron had every right to be pissed at him. I would’ve been. But I can’t say I don’t understand it.
When we see Kevin ten years later in the diner at the end of the film, it’s clear that he’s grown and changed. He’s a man now – and the sorrow in his voice when he apologizes to Chiron for his adolescent actions is palpable. He is sorry. He wants to make amends. And I think Chiron forgives him, not because he’s completely over what Kevin did – the actions that eventually led him to be in jail for years – but because he needs companionship and comfort, and Kevin is the only man he’s ever loved.
Beyond being a film about Black queer identity and exploration of intersection, at its roots Moonlight is a film about honest, raw human interaction, and how multifaceted and complex people can be. Paula could have continued to do crack and eventually gotten herself killed, but she didn’t; she (presumably) turned herself into a rehabilitation facility, and she genuinely seems apologetic for her actions when Chiron meets with her at the end. Juan, despite doing nothing to stop Paula from taking drugs from him, took Chiron in and cared for him when nobody else would. And Kevin, at the end, opens his home to Chiron and is willing to comfort and love him as much as he needs.
I’m not going to tell anyone how to feel about Kevin as a person, because that would be wrong. But I am going to ask everyone to look beyond themselves and how they would have reacted, to Chiron and the kind of person he is. He has spent his whole life mostly alone. He had Juan for a while, but Juan died and left him. He had Teresa’s care for a while, but then he went to prison. Kevin betrayed him, and his mother didn’t seem to care about him for a big portion of his life. It’s natural that he would be willing to forgive Kevin.
But also, I think we need to understand that Kevin has changed when we see him at the end. So has Chiron. It’s been ten years, and both men have learned a lot about themselves. The kind of man Kevin is at the end is completely different from the boy he was when they were in school, or even the boy he was on the playground in the beginning. People can change, grow and learn. I certainly have.
I was very ignorant growing up – I didn’t understand the importance of going against the grain, being yourself and not letting anyone judge you. Like Chiron, I was bullied. I was made to feel lower than everyone else, because I was so obviously not as masculine and not as much of a man as everyone else. I had friends, I had family, but for a good portion of my life I felt truly alone. I couldn’t talk to anyone – I couldn’t rely on anyone, because I was too terrified that my sexuality would turn them away from me.
But also like Kevin, I have grown. I have matured. Now, I can see the error of the ways I had when I was a child. Like Kevin, I made mistakes, huge ones, when it came to boys. I did stupid things out of fear that I wouldn’t be accepted with everyone else. I dated girls I knew I didn’t want, because I wanted to fit in. I tried to change. Now I am completely confident in who I am, and I refuse to let anyone change all that I love about myself. And that, I think, is the lesson this movie is trying to teach us.
We need to stop vilifying Kevin. Because, just like me – just like all of us – he is nothing else but human.