The movie Moonlight has been met with critical acclaim since June. Some reviews have stated that the film is riveting because of the story that it tells: a young black gay man navigating drugs, mass incarceration and the violence of his neighborhood. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film navigates the tides and turns that queer men face when navigating elements of their racial and sexual identities.
In 2014 the film Blackbird (based on a novel) also received critical praise, with many voicing that there is so much we can learn from the story of a young man searching for both religious and sexual liberation. After pondering the similarities that each character shared, I began to wonder: Why is it easy for us to acknowledge the pain in each of these stories, yet we never celebrate queer black men who are confident in their intersectional identities?
Now, it would be easy for someone reading this to think that I am throwing shade at the directors of each of these films. That would be far from my intent. Each film grapples with many of the issues that queer black men face when coming to terms with their racial and sexual identities, and that in itself deserves to be celebrated (can someone say “visibility”?). Many queer black men rarely get an opportunity to see their multiple identities as synonymous, let alone the foundation of a large-scale feature film. But what I find to be so troubling about the content of these films is that it perpetuates the notion that queer black men are often damaged or weak when they decide to walk, live and love fully in their truth.
I remember reading an article connected to the arrest of DeRay Mckesson back in July 2016. While Mckesson was bravely leading the protest related to the untimely death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., various people on social media commented that Mckesson was unfit to lead the movement because of his queer identity. Some tweeted that Mckesson was not “a real man” because he spoke openly about his sexuality, while other tweeted and mocked him for identifying as part of the LGBTQ community. No one discussed how Mckesson was a hero in the moments of his arrest and that his experience as a queer black man made him strong enough to endure the situation he experienced in Baton Rouge.
When celebrating these films, we must take into account how each of these storylines feeds into the problematic rhetoric that all queer black men are somehow fragile and fragmented. Though it is important for me as a queer black man to see my story represented in films like Blackbird and Moonlight, it is also important for filmmakers to explore the positive lived experiences that queer black men have.
Not all queer, black, male-identified stories are stories of struggle.
We, too, come from loving homes. We, too, go to college. We, too, have found love or continue to be in love with our significant others while living happy and full lives.
While I am truly grateful that there are storytellers, filmmakers, directors and actors who are brave enough to take on topics of hyper and toxic masculinity in films like Moonlight and Blackbird, I am left to ask, when will we begin having conversations around the need for healing of queer black men, especially those who have been hurt by their families and the church?
Society needs to acknowledge that queer black men are strong not just because they accept who they are but because they have survived being told that they are less for wanting more than a negative storyline.
The reality for many queer black men like myself is that we are tired of films that depict us as being “brave” simply for acknowledging our sexual identity. Queer black men have been, and continue to be, resilient in the face of all adversity, both past and present.
I hope that one day our stories will go beyond independent-lensed coming-of-age stories involving struggle, sadness and marginalization. It would be great to see more content that reflects and includes queer black men as resilient, strong and confident individuals who live and love in various shades of the rainbow.
And while pain is a part of everyone’s journey, I wait for the day that it is not the only thing highlighted in stories related to the experiences of queer black men at the box office.