Expanding the View...
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
“Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
– James Baldwin
There is a quiet anxiety in the projection of Black male intimacy on screen. The fear of being caught or scrutinized or being-looked-at is due to the innate violent responses to queerness within manhood and masculinity. But currently, there are two contemporary films that say, “let them look”. Let them look at the passion. Let them look at the pleasure, but also look at the pain. Let them look at the learned violence & hatred. Moonlight & The Wound add to the rewriting of the global viewing of Black men questioning, exploring and/or expressing their queerness in films.
Moonlight (2016), is a US film directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. This coming-of-age narrative is about a young Black boy navigating the complexity of his sexuality. From his youth to adolescence to young adulthood, these three defining chapters of his life growing up in Miami showcases his difficult journey to manhood.
The Wound (2017) is a South African film directed by John Trengove. It follows the closeted relationship between two men tasked with leading young boys through the Xhosa initiation ritual of Ulwaluko, which is an initiation into manhood. Conflict stirs as one of the initiates, who is also gay, discovers the secret of these two men. Both of these films are uniquely timely, only releasing a year apart from each other and having both received international acclaim. Thematically, these films are starkly similar, dealing directly with the constructions of manhood and masculinity as it pertains to queer interactions that shape the characterization of the men. These films play an essential role in the projection of intimacy and softness that Black men can share with one another, while also showing us the violent effects that manhood can have upon the exploration of queerness. It is imperative for Black male intimacy on screen to have a global perspective and despite their vastly different outcomes, Moonlight and The Wound rewrite that experience for us because, “Intimacy, however performed or imagined in the European metropole, reflects the ambitions of a burgeoning Black diaspora, on a large scale and Black masculine subjects on a smaller scale,” (Brown, 2012).
Although stylistically different, both of these Black queer narratives use locations and character blocking to reject the dominate cinema of their homelands and to present unique moments of isolated intimacy between Black men that challenges the hegemonic attitudes of their countries. It is important to note that this paper is not a comparison about the functioning of queerness in both films because, although they are thematically similar, the situations, plots and outcomes for these characters are hyper-specific to their environment and arguing for a preference would be reductive. This is rather an examination of techniques employed throughout both films to express queerness and its relation to their respective homeland cinema.
Outside of Four Walls
There is a particular scene in both films that weds them together seamlessly. That scene is a moment of isolated romantic intimacy between Black men. In Moonlight, it is the moment between Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, and Kevin, played by Jharell Jerome, on an empty Miami beach at night (49:29 – 57:10). In The Wound, it is the moment between Xolani, played by Nakhane, and Vija, played by Bongile Mantsai, as they wander and sit in an open field (43:58 – 48:50). Both of the scenes offer tender moments between the characters and are starkly similar in composition, but it is the location of these intimate moments that are worth noting. These scenes are in “open” and exposed areas that happen to be isolated from their environments. In the case of Moonlight, they are relaxing on the sand of an empty beach at night. The only thing that the audience can hear is the waves, the soft breeze and their conversation. The audience is sonically separated from the busy streets of Miami, isolating Chiron and Kevin in their own world of intimacy, and most importantly, privacy. Similarly, in The Wound, Xolani and Vija are wandering in an open field of tall grass as the sky is transitioning into gray. They settle in on a spot, sit down and begin to have a conversation about their childhood. The audience can see the horizon in front of them and how separated from the world these characters are. In this moment, Xolani and Vija share a kiss. In like manner in Moonlight, Chiron and Kevin share a kiss. The audience witnesses these kisses as the backgrounds of their environments are out of focus. The open space around them doesn’t exist, in this moment it is just them.
To intentionally have two Black men have a romantic interaction with each other in an open space contrasts the preconceived expression of queerness for Black men who are questioning and/or exploring. In the western context, it is often considered being “on-the-down-low.” “Down low” is in reference to Black men who have discreet sex with other men and/or engage in queer activities. “These men challenge this overdetermination of the closet as a container of shame, pain, discomfort, and anxiety – offering a counter-narrative of discretion as a tactic of survival,” (McCune, 2008). In the context of South Africa, there is specific rhetoric from leaders that imply that homosexuality is, “A symptom of Western decadence that ‘threatens’ traditional culture,” (Dickerson, 2018). These constructions often lead questioning Black men to hide their sexuality from others for protection of themselves or the ones who they’ve explored with. This has led to the exploration of their queerness as being taboo or “only done behind closed doors”. This is noted even in contemporary conversations surrounding the representation of queer films (and TV) alluding that there is “too much homosexuality on TV and film.” The concealment that is expected for queer narratives, specifically that are Black, is not new and has happened throughout all forms of media. This is seen vividly in literature, where queerness and the exploration of it is tied to and boxed into a room. Most notably seen in James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956). But what is uniquely done in both of these films is the choice to have their moments of romantic intimacy step outside of four walls and be in open spaces, while simultaneously providing them the privacy that their exploration warrants. That choice is not only a rejection of hegemonic ideals of queer intimacy, but also rejects the expectation of queerness to be concealed in dominant cinema.
Furthermore, in this same scene the choice of blocking for the characters show strong similarities. Vijo sits to the left of Xolani. Kevin sits to the left of Chiron. Vijo has his arm around Xolani, pulling him closer to him. Kevin’s hand is softly gripping Chiron’s neck, pulling him closer to him. Vija and Kevin are initiating the intimacy, leaving Xolani and Chiron vulnerable for their affection. These men sit shoulder to shoulder. Deeply looking into each other’s eyes, isolated from the world around them. Vijo kisses Xolani, Kevin kisses Chiron. An emblem of their desire for one another. The blocking of these characters rejects the hegemonic rule for the ways in which men seek intimacy from one another by inherently making this moment queer. According to Sociologist Harry Brod, “Numerous studies have established that men are more likely to define emotional closeness as working or playing side-by-side (shoulder-to-shoulder),” (Brod, 1994). Both of these scenes could have had these men facing each other to achieve the romantic intimacy it was intended to have but choosing to have them side-by-side establishes that hegemonic basis for intimacy, while also breaking it when these men are pulling each other in for a romantically queer interaction.
Rejection of Homeland Dominant Cinema
Alongside the rejection of hegemonic standards for queer expression for Black men, these two films serve as rejections of the dominant cinema in their respective homelands. Moonlight, set and released in the United States, sits outside of the First cinema expectations that are engrained in “Hollywood” films. With an imperialist and capitalist grounding, First cinema is all about the spectacular and Moonlight is far from it. This is evident due to the fact that Moonlight was an ultra-low budget, independent film that became the lowest-grossing film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards with only $22.2 million in domestic movie ticket sales. The film carries more like an auteur, with a French New Wave influence throughout. Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, even notes that the film was influenced by fellow French director, Claire Denise. Through the subjective realism of Chiron’s exploration of his queerness through his dreams and dream-like sequences, to the dynamic lighting choices, to the long takes between Chiron and Kevin and especially with the unanswered question of whether Chiron would ever explore that queer intimacy again, falls into the French New Wave. In a society that is dominated by spectacular, Moonlight presented emotional commentary about Black manhood and the exploration of queerness, without having to over-sexualize or become a spectacle upon his sexual interactions, which First cinema has a history of doing, especially with Black bodies.
In comparison, The Wound, set in South Africa and released in Germany, sits outside of the Third cinema that has strong influences in South African films (anti-apartheid rhetoric). With a grounding in worldwide liberation movements that fosters a sense of hope or creating a “new man,” Third cinema aims to decolonize our minds. It also avoids commercialism and refuses the capitalist model. Although South Africa, was one of the first countries to acknowledge the rights of LGBTQ folks, queerness and same-sex relationships are viewed as non-traditional or even responsible for hurting the traditions overall. So, the depiction of two South African closeted men who in engage in several romantic scenes, inherently makes The Wound an utter rejection of South Africa’s underlying homophobic rhetoric, thus included in the purpose of Third cinema, which is to give a voice to the oppressed. The Wound, though very clear in their intentions of queer projections, rejects the non-commercialism and non-capitalist model that Third cinema is grounded in, through the international acclaim and distribution that it has had, even in the US. This film, like Moonlight, also leans towards the French New Wave and less on the dominant cinema of its homeland. Through breaking rules (exposing the secrecy of the Xhosa tradition of manhood) to the blatant critique of state and oppressive institutions through the character Kwanda to the unanswered question of whether Xolani would ever return to Xhosa after murdering Kwanda. The Wound presented reflective commentary about South African traditions that exposes its inherent homophobia and the tragic outcome of attempting to conceal queerness.
Overall, both of these films provide unique storytelling experiences about Black male intimacy, sexuality and manhood that positions them outside of the hegemonic and dominant standards of cinema. It is important to note though while these films serve as a rejection, they both also benefit from the capitalist model of success within First cinema (this applies to Moonlight after its Academy award win). The scene described above speaks loudly to the efforts of queering Black male intimacy and opening space for them to explore outside of four walls. As there continues to be a rewriting of a global viewing of Black queerness, Moonlight & The Wound working in tandem adds much depth to those understandings.