Last week, following La La Land, I watched Moonlight, a film set in Florida (mostly) that follows a young boy's / man's life in three episodes: 1) Pre-adolescent 2) Adolescent and 3) Grown (though these went by different, more clever titles). I was enraptured from minute one, and this has much to do with the cinematography and the acting.
The general narrative was not particularly new; it was a coming-of-age tale in an urban U.S. city, with scenes of drug abuse, splintered families and lonely hearts. Quite a few American films have worked to capture this on screen--to make peace by sharing struggle. What made this development so beautiful were the three actors that played the main character across time (and also, one supporting actor in particular - hello, Mahershala Ali, I love you). To grow with one character played by three individuals was an interesting exercise, and one executed quite well in that each version of the same character was transformed by his experiences, by those who loved and abandoned him, by the nicknames he was given as he grew. The influence of a community reflected in the broken innocence of a boy.
The film also artfully brought to the surface questions of sexuality, and the approach to this is what I found most riveting. As a boy and young adult, the character is lanky, quiet, sensitive and is called names, his sexuality (before it has even been determined) criticized. His manhood, his strength is questioned and bullied. These experiences make him shut himself off further, growing into a muscled man who has changed physically but, emotionally, remains true to and shy of himself. The acting was explosive for capturing this.
This fear of the young man in appearing weak and vulnerable is reflected in This Beautiful Struggle, and in many articles that have recently appeared around how media and social constructions define manhood, define strength over weakness. There is great pressure for boys to 'man up', to hide 'femininity'. Vulnerability in men is perceived as weak, so boys are asked to hide it, to feel shame about it. This shame reflects itself in rage or in disconnection, the latter of which we saw in the main character of Moonlight.
Undoubtedly, the three actors that play the main character are men. They are masculine. They are also vulnerable. They are also sensitive. These qualities are not mutually exclusive. Society draws this division far too often. Gay men are masculine. Straight men are sometimes feminine. Men who do not fight are still masculine. What makes Moonlight an incredible film is that is captures the duality and the tension, and the harm that is caused when we try to make it one versus the other. But also, the opportunity for redemption.
This podcast explores this concept in more depth and brings voice to the issue. It explores the mix that can exist--qualities of masculinity and femininity in many blends of sexuality. I totally recommend it.