Editorial Note: The phrase “gaywashing the film,” which the author used in an earlier draft of this article has been changed. After considering the fact that the screenplay from which the stage play was adapted was written by a Black gay man, the concept of gaywashing the film is imprecise. It is the interpretation of the sexually fluid character, Kevin, as a Black gay man or the lack of acknowledge of Kevin’s bisexuality that are more precisely acts of gaywashing.
A film with an all Black cast won the award for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The film, “Moonlight” directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The win has sparked new and renewed interest in the 2016 film about the journey from childhood to adulthood of a Black boy, Little (pre-teen)/Chiron (adolescent)/Black (20-something), a child of Liberty City, Miami, Florida. Both the writer/director and story playwright hail from Liberty City. When the film was first released, Black gay men across the United States flocked to theaters on a psychosocial pilgrimage. Many of them were nervously seeking to see themselves represented on screen in an unusual way—human, authentic, and complexly whole.
With few exceptions, filmmakers rarely depict Black gay men who are central to the storyline, against type, and complex. So there were a lot of hopes and fears occupying theaters alongside moviegoers. A screenplay adapted from a stage play by Black gay theatre star, TAM (he’s so big he can be referenced using an acronym), the new chair of playwriting at the renowned Yale School of Drama, meant that there was at least a foundation for the hopes. But could those hopes be realized in the artistic vision of the screenplay writer and director Barry Jenkins, a Black heterosexual man?
If the social media response was the measure by which we evaluated the film’s achievement in satisfying those hopes, then hell yeah it did. Black gay men, general audience and critics alike, gave the film a hallelujah chorus of accolades with the notable exception of Armond White. The characters were a significant departure from previous Black gay characters in film—they weren’t gay.
As a child, the main character, Little/Chiron/Black, played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively) to correspond to the age of the character the film captures, lives in a world that is hostile to his inability to conform to prescribed gender norms for Black boys. Schoolmates bully him all the way into his teens with other Black males being the primary policing agents of his gender transgressions. The two Black males who offer succor for Little/Chiron are a local drug dealer, named Juan (played by Mahershala Ali), and a schoolmate, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner and Jharrel Jerome). Both characters offer powerful forms of solace to Little/Chiron through their words and bodies. Jenkins’ use of water as a motif—so poetic it rises to the level of ritualistic, Black magic—frequently reflects the love Juan and Kevin give to Little/Chiron. Their love saturates him—leaving him forever changed.
Jenkins creates in “Moonlight” an important meditation on gender and class but he did not create gay characters. The main character Little/Chiron/Black never uses a label to describe his sexuality. He neither embraces nor rejects any label. And if we are to believe his statement in the final act of the film, at 20-something, he has experienced the sexual touch of one man in his life. Only the most rabid exercise of the sexual one-drop rule, whereby people’s sexuality is forever marked by one sexual experience/relationship, would allow us to legitimately define Little/Chiron/Black as gay.
The ways in which Jenkins so desexualized Little/Chiron/Black, as well as Juan for that matter, give us more reason to interpret him as asexual. Asexual people can and oftentimes do co-identify as asexual and one other sexual identity such as heterosexual, gay/lesbian, or bisexual. But a careful character study of Little/Chiron/Black will yield very interesting results for those who wish to move past their personal investments in sexual identity politics. My own work in that regard has led me to consider Little/Chiron/Black as a Black asexual man.
The Asexual Visibility and Education Network defines asexual persons as
“someone who does not experience sexual attraction…each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently…. [Some] asexual people have a desire to form more intimate romantic relationships, and will date and seek long-term partnerships…. Many asexual people experience attraction, but we feel no need to act out that attraction sexually. Instead we feel a desire to get to know someone, to get close to them in whatever way works best for us…. For some sexual arousal is a fairly regular occurrence, though it is not associated with a desire to find a sexual partner or partners. Some will occasionally masturbate, but feel no desire for partnered sexuality. Other asexual people experience little or no arousal.”
In addition to the questions “Moonlight” raises regarding masculinity, it provides us with an opportunity to explore asexuality—something of which most people know nothing. It is highly unlikely that Jenkins and TAM conceived of Little/Chiron/Black as asexual but when we consider the description above it is clear that the character they produced was an asexual character, who may or may not be gay or bisexual. It is interesting to consider how the process of a heterosexual screenwriter/director translating the vision of a gay playwright could have contributed to the creation of an asexual character.
We might want to say that Jenkins’ desexualization of Little/Chiron/Black was due to his personal anxieties with same-sex sexuality. But Jenkins was not shy in depicting same-sex sexual activity in the film and the muted sexual tones of his artistic palate desexualized other characters like Juan and Teresa whose lover relationship Jenkins only revealed to us through a passing comment. Their physical distance is evident in all of their scenes together. Therefore, there is more justification to embrace Little/Chiron/Black as asexual because of the asexuality of the character.
Similarly, there is justification for embracing Kevin as bisexual. Kevin’s sexual fluidity is evident in the dialogue throughout the film yet few critics and general conversations engage Kevin as a Black bisexual male. This silenced discourse is troubling and a missed opportunity given the complexities of the character including his strategic negotiation of gender policing from childhood, difficulties in managing his friendship with Little/Chiron/Black, and ease with same-sex intimacy.
Kevin’s evolution as a character is in a powerful way more apparent than that of Little/Chiron/Black. Act three of the film is as powerful as it is because of Kevin’s evolution and Little/Chiron/Black’s stasis. We witness the confrontation of two men—one whose grown since adolescence and one whose muscular growth has overshadowed his interior growth—as they repair the breach of their shared paths. Kevin’s sexual fluidity not only contributes to his ability to evolve but also his capacity to act as the healing waters that wash over Little/Chiron/Black.
Although this way of viewing “Moonlight” may challenge the satisfaction that some Black gay men have felt from gaywashing the character Kevin to address their legitimate desire to witness themselves represented in films of this quality, I hope that it expands our capacity to recognize and embrace sexual diversity as well as our understanding of what sexual diversity is.