‘Moonlight’ is a 2016 film that follows the life of protagonist, Chiron through three different stages of his life; childhood, adolescence and as a young adult. Directed by Barry Jenkins, ‘Moonlight’ provides the raw reality of queer life and brings light to the way black, queer and drug abusing minority groups often feel. This essay will first provide a description of intersectionality to help with the analysis of the subsequent arguments. It will then be highlighted what intersectional work moonlight provides, which will be examined through the construction of the protagonists’s intersectional identity broken down by the three stages of his life. Finally, using Chiron’s relationships with other key characters, it can be identified the places of intersection between victim identities. These will be used to reference how intersectionality can inspire greater social and political action to mobilise coalition work.
‘Intersectionality’ established by Kimberle Crenshaw, first emerged in her paper, ‘Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex’ in 1989. Crenshaw discusses in this paper how, “because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which black women are subordinated" (1989, 140). Crenshaw’s initial focus was on black women, as she herself was a black woman but the theory works to transcend this focus because it was about the intricacies and entireties of discrimination. Crenshaw believes that the essential issue before intersectionality was that the courts saw aspects of race and gender for example, as mutually exclusive. The problem with this was that it missed out on the full level of discriminatory understanding. It is to understand that a black woman is discriminated on the basis that she is both black and a woman as it must be understood how they both intersect in discrimination. The essential intention of intersectionality is to bring aspects like race and gender, and intersect them for a greater understanding of discrimination and oppression in order to inspire coalition work. Crenshaw has created a different form of hierarchy with intersectionality, with white heterosexual males at the bottom. “intersectionality is a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depend on how many victim groups you belong to” (Shapiro 2018, 0:27), and used to highlight the different intersections minorities will meet at. For example, a gay hispanic man and a gay black man have differing race identities, but belong to the same victim group based on sexuality which is their point of intersection. Intersectionality was established to show how you can be discriminated for different reasons and to challenge the idea of a single-issue analysis. Intersectionality worked to demonstrate how “individuals have individual identities that intersect in ways that impact how they are viewed, understood and treated” (Crenshaw cited in Coaston 2019) in order to bring a greater sense of egalitarianism into society with deeper understandings of structural disadvantage.
‘Moonlight’ highlights the significance of intersectionality through the construction of the protagonist, Chiron’s intersectional identity. Chiron is a black, lower class, queer man and his discrimination is based upon the intersection of these three aspects; race, class and sexuality. Chiron is a prime example of an intersectional individual, and it will be discussed how these parts of his identity have caused him a deeper level of marginalisation than other black people in the film. ‘Moonlight’ only features black characters, and aims to represent how even amongst the same marginalised race, there are different levels of discrimination. Each stage in the film represents a key establishment of Chiron’s unique marginalisation. Stage 1, childhood represents queerness, which is the first thing that sets Chiron apart from the other black children. Stage 2, adolescence highlights an intersection of this established sexuality with class as it becomes apparent that Chiron’s social standing is much weaker. Finally stage 3, adulthood is a representation of hiding behind the implied social expectations of being black. Chiron adopts the hyper masculine male persona as a protection mechanism that hides his sexuality and class.
In the first scene and stage 1 of the film, childhood, Chiron is being chased by bullies and he runs into an abandoned building to escape and is rescued by Juan. Juan becomes a father figure to Chiron, as he only has his mother at home. This bullying establishes very early on that Chiron is different to the other children. This bullying is later explained when Chiron speaks to Juan asking, “what’s a faggot” to which he responds, “you could be gay but you gotta let nobody call you a faggot”, which is the first time queerness is explicitly mentioned in the film. This is a key moment that explains how Chiron is different because although him and all his other classmates are black and they intersect on their shared victim identity of race, Chiron is also intersected with queerness. This new intersection, changes the nuances of his discrimination and places him higher on Crenshaw’s hierarchy of discrimination. Cohen discusses how in queer theorising, “the sexual subject is understood to be constructed and contained by multiple practices of categorisation and regulation that systematically marginalise and oppress those subjects, thereby defined as deviant and 'other'" (Cohen 1997, 439), which references the differences between a queer and a heterosexual black man. ‘The other’ is a clear description of the deeper level of marginalisation that a queer person will feel in society. Categories and labels that queer people are often put in come with assumptions and stereotypes. These further marginalise queer identities, as the label ‘faggot’ is implied by Juan to be more insulting than gay which is what Cohen’s queer theorising expresses.
This intersectional identity is also further developed in stage 2, adolescence, when Chiron’s lower class status becomes publicly known. In childhood, this social factor of class may not have been as inherently significant, but as the characters get older, the awareness of these repercussions becomes much more deep rooted. Chiron walks home from school one day and is followed by the bullies who call him “gay shit” and refer to his mother as a “crackhead”. The elements of queerness still position him in a different social pool of discrimination, but the additional lower class factor has deepened this oppression. This scene details how it is now public knowledge that his mother is a single-parent with drug abusive history, which places him in a lower social class. Chiron’s mother in later scenes is also caught stealing money from Chiron, further emphasising how the drug abuse and absence of another parent’s support has contributed to their class struggle. Chiron’s class and sexuality have intersected to create a level of discrimination to compare the differences in Chiron’s story. To further this, Crenshaw establishes the problems of a single-axis framework. She explains how a black woman for example, “can experience discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradiction arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional" (Crenshaw 1989, 149), explaining how this woman may be discriminated on the basis that she is black or on the basis that she is a woman. Although Crenshaw’s focus is on black women, the theory applied is the same as it demonstrates how it is problematic to assume universal subjectivity. Cohen also builds on this and and demonstrates concerns for the single-issue analysis. Cohen argues how there are certain individuals who "consistently activate only one characteristic of their identity or a single perspective of consciousness, to organise their politics, rejecting any recognition of the multiple and intersecting systems of power that largely dictate our life chances" (1997, 440). There cannot exist simple dichotomies between heterosexual and queer, between black or white, because there are many intersections in individual identities, but also across other identities that must be considered and are often times not, which Cohen and Crenshaw discuss as majorly problematic. This rids the entire grey area in between. ‘Moonlight’ demonstrates how a character like Chiron is truly struggling to activate more than one side of his identity as Cohen highlights in his analysis.
In stage 3 of the film, adulthood, the focus is on black hyper masculine stereotypes. Chiron tries to hide his sexuality and class, which his childhood friend, Kevin references with Chiron’s use of ‘fronts’, “why you got them damn fronts man”. He implies that they are not necessary and it is strange for Chiron to hide who he is. Chiron’s appearance majorly changes in this third stage; he has massively bulked up, has gold teeth covers and is involved in some sort of drug dealership. It is clear that these ‘fronts’ mask who Chiron really is and portrays the persona that he feels he should alternately exist as. Cohen discuses how queer theory presents the “socially constructed nature of sexuality and sexual categories” (1997, 438), which makes reference to how sexuality was conceptualised to make sense and to emerge as a theory worth focusing on. Whilst queer theory remains important, it is also significant to note that sexuality is not the only formation of identity and discrimination. ‘Moonlight’ reflects this well, in being able to demonstrate an intersection between his social labels of black, working class and queer. All of these aspects of class, race and sexuality “exist simultaneously with each other" (997, 84), as Muñoz describes the concept of intersectionality. They are co-present in the construction of Chiron’s discrimination and demonstrate the different social categories that define his distinct type of discrimination. All these aspects exist at the same time as they are all part of who he is. This is not however the only definition of his identity, this is the mere description of his discriminatory reality. Intersectionality wants to use this understanding to enable minorities such as Chiron to be more than just their oppression as Muñoz also describes. He bases this oppression on personal experience describing how despite "identity eroding effects of normativity, I was able to enact a certain misrecognition that let me imagine myself as something other than queer or racialised" (1997, 80). ‘Moonlight’ demonstrates the complexities of a black man’s intense fear to face all of his discriminations simultaneously. As a result, he chooses to find strength in the less stigmatised persona and use this ‘front’ to hide his fear of being known publicly to his minority community as queer, bringing light to discrmintaory reality.
The places of intersection between victim identities will be analysed through Chiron’s key relationships to demonstrate how intersectionality can inspire greater social and political action to mobilise coalition work. Cohen argues that queer theory has failed to notify the “roles that race, class and gender play in defining people’s different relations to dominant and normalising power” (1997, 457). This is a way that discriminatory understanding can be used for the future of queer lives because minority relationships to power will all have their own nuanced differences and how discrimination will be different across those bases. They all do however, share the fact that there is a marginal relationship to power. These distinctive social labels are separate in nature but are still intersected formations to promote how “victim solidarity trumps all other considerations” (Shapiro 2018, 2:19). This solidarity works in relation to the fact that all of Chiron’s relationships in the film are with other minorities promoting a sense of hope and inspiration for minority groups to work together and builds a symbolic sense of coalition work. Juan is a drug dealer, his Kevin is also queer, and his mother, Paula is according to Crenshaw’s theory, at the peak of the intersectional hierarchy. Paula’s marginalisation comes from her intersectional status as a black, lower class, drug abusing, single-parenting woman in society. Throughout the film, Chiron has Juan, Teresa (Juan’s girlfriend) and Kevin who support him, but Paula is consistently left with no one. Symbolism of isolation is used in the relationship between Chiron and his mother to emphasise the symbolic nature of Paula’s deeper suffering as a result of her social position. Chiron chooses solidarity as a protection mechanism, whereas with Paula it is thrust upon her. However, in spite of Chiron and Paula’s difficult relationship, the final stage contrasts this when Chiron goes to visit Paula in a home where she now resides. Paula tells Chiron, “yo heart ain’t gotta be black like mine, baby”, as she expresses her genuine love and that there is something better for him than what she had and what she gave him. This makes Chiron cry, and it is seen how his walls come down and his ‘fronts’ are being taken away. This relationship change demonstrates the ability to inspire hope between minorities that were once struggling to unite and for individuals that only share one intersection of marginalisation to still be able to band together. Chiron and Paula share the same race, which is their only point of intersection, however this pinnacle moment represents a hopeful turn in being able to use a shared relationship of being marginalised in the face of dominant power towards a united force.
Chiron’s fronts are also taken down in the stage 3 with Kevin, and the repetition of this fronts removal is immensely symbolic of hope. It is only in this final scene of the film where Chiron truly accepts and is content with his sexuality. Chiron rests his head on Kevin’s shoulder and they both are seen to be accepting of their queer feelings. The significance of this is in the removal of the fronts in light of a developed relationship. Chiron dropping his fronts with Paula, who he only shares one point of intersection with and Kevin who he shares two points; black and queer, highlight hope amongst minority groups. They demonstrate how intersectionality can be used to emphasise discrimination in order to bind groups together no matter how many or how little intersection points they share. “It was clear that deeply entrenched social inequalities would not disappear overnight… what was different [however] was a new way of looking at social inequalities and possibilities for social change" (Collins 2019, 1), which is what intersectionality has brought forward. It must be understood that underlying social inequalities are very much still present, but the way that intersectionality changes perspectives on discrimination is fundamental. Roberts and Jesudason also point out that "identifying categorical differences can enhance the potential to build coalitions between movements by acknowledging differences while promoting commonalities" (cited in Carabado 2013, 306). This explains how in terms of intersectionality, the subtleties of discrimination are crucial, but minorities still all share the fact that they have a relationship with dominant power. This is seen with Chiron’s relationships and advocates a potential turn for intersectionality and the future of coalition work.
This essay has used ‘Moonlight’ to demonstrate intersectionality and how it brings light to the reality of discrimination. It first analysed the construction of the protagonists’ intersectional identity. A key relationship between Chiron and his mother was also examined to identify places of intersection between victim identities to inspire potential social action for coalition work.
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Cohen, C. (1997). Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 3(4), pp.437-465.
Collins, P Hill. (2019). Intersectionality as critical social theory. Duke University Press, pp.1-15.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), pp.138-167.
Lindsay, K. (2013). God, Gays, and Progressive Politics: Reconceptualizing Intersectionality as a Normatively Malleable Analytical Framework. Perspectives on Politics, 11(2), pp.447-460.
Muñoz, J. (1997). "The White to Be Angry": Vaginal Davis's Terrorist Drag. Social Text, (52/53), pp.80-103.
Moonlight. (2016). [film] Directed by B. Jenkins. A24, Plan B Entertainment, Pastel Productions.
What is Intersectionality?. (2019). [video] Directed by B. Shapiro. PragerU. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rc7VUoytoU4.