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Hollywood Needs to Stop Playing Chicken with Gay Sex

Yes you can do more

So the Golden Globes are now well behind us, leaving two inescapable truths. 1) Meryl's speech deserves to be broadcast everywhere between here to the furthest reaches of space, and 2) The Oscar is La La Land’s to lose. I was excited to see French thriller Elle finally get some of the Stateside praise it so richly deserves, because with its much talked about shortlist exclusion, it certainly won’t get this come Oscar time. Come on, kids! Isabelle Huppert is a goddess on par with Meryl.

Another critic’s favourite snapped up the award for Best Picture – Drama, despite not converting any of its numerous other nominations to wins. Okay, if you’ve been paying even a whiff of attention to awards season, it felt kind of inevitable that Moonlight would win, and I can’t say this makes me unhappy. After all, a major American movie about a man who’s poor, black, and gay just picked up a major Best Picture award.

I’ll say that again, a movie about a man who is poor, black, and gay.

In America.

Yet I also can’t honestly say Moonlight satisfied me all that much as a film.

Okay, so now I’ve blasphemed and probably micro-aggressed about half the world’s liberal film buffs, let me elaborate. I normally wouldn’t do this, except in this case, I was asked to elaborate after I tweeted my dissatisfaction with Moonlight (while appreciating the ideological value of its GG win), and my reasons tie into a challenge facing gay (and MM) fiction as well.

First off, I’m not calling Moonlight a bad movie. It isn’t. The entire cast brings their A-game, particularly Naomie Harris who brings a range and depth to Chiron’s drug-addled mother that the screenplay doesn’t really provide for her. It’s no accident that her one scene with the adult Chiron stands out as perhaps the film’s strongest. Then, there’s the film’s visual aesthetic. Even though I’m about to tear certain aspects of its writing to shreds, I will say, if you are going to see Moonlight, see it in a theatre. Don’t wait for VOD. You might expect a film based on a play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue to be big on visuals, but Jenkins brings such poetic visual flair to his film, making full use of the big screen canvas, that you really do need to see it on this scale to appreciate these strengths.

And yes, I know we’re not supposed to admire or dis movies based on ideology, but one more time: Hugely successful American movie about a poor, black, gay man. It kind of disgusts me that this feels like such a milestone achievement, but it does. Not all gays are rich. We’re not all fabulous. We’re not all white. Chiron is the ultimate symbol of the American dream’s betrayal.

And therein lies the movie’s main problem. It’s content for Chiron to be a symbol. Innocent. Child-like. Naïve. Emotionally stunted. Victimized. Because making him a fully realized person would have forced Moonlight to deal with two realities it takes great strides to avoid. One is that as a black, gay, poor man in America, Chiron has every reason to be mightily pissed off (Hell, even Jesus was less passive and tolerant than this guy). More dangerously, it would force Moonlight, and its predominantly straight audience to deal with gay sex.

Gonna say that again. Not gay marriage. Not gay equality. GAY SEX!!!

Warning: Major spoilers for Moonlight ahead.

Yes. Gay sex. That most wondrous of pleasures that we all know is awesome, yet which horrifies and alienates most of the straight world while strangely fascinating James Franco. Okay, there’s the bubble of the MM romance reading community that has occasionally called out my books (despite their explicit gay sex scenes) with reviews like this one. But that’s still a small, niche community that doesn’t really reflect Joe and Jane Multiplex-going Public. In theory, you know the adult Chiron could be having gay sex. Hell, with Trevante Rhodes' body, he bloody well should be having lots of it. Yet this absolutely cannot be allowed, since it undermines the story of Chiron as the perfect, innocent man-child. He’s the little boy on the movie poster we’re supposed to pity, which is okay when the character is actually a little boy. But by the film’s act three, he’s become a man. He’s done time in juvie, and is now a drug runner with a scary-ass golden grill in big bad Atlanta. I simply do not buy his weirdly symbolic celibacy as he spends 10-12 years pining for the boy who gave him a hand job on the beach that one night. It’s the kind of cute, contrived idea I might go for within the heightened reality of a stage play, but not in a film otherwise so devoted to realism.

But it does give a predominantly straight audience an easy out. A way to sweep the notion of gay sex beyond innocent teen experimentation under the rug while still patting themselves on the back for ‘supporting gay cinema.’ Moonlight is in many ways the ultimate gay/black movie for straight/white people. Sure, you went to see a movie about gay people. You just didn’t have to deal with what they actually do as sexually active human beings. I’m going to leave dissection of the story as a black narrative to other commentators more learned in that field, but there is little in Moonlight that we haven’t seen in other films before (even if Moonlight nails many of its depictions), and more than one black LGBT writer/critic has expressed frustration that it is yet another portrayal of American blacks as ghettoized victims, even as they praise the movie’s aesthetic and mainstream success.

The truth is, Moonlight doesn’t need explicit sex scenes to be a much more sensual and realistic film. I don’t need to see Chiron and Kevin getting it on, particularly after a decade of alienation from each other. This raises another issue with the film. The entire scene in which Kevin caves to pressure and beats up a defenseless Chiron comes from nowhere. Kevin has nothing to gain by doing this. The bullies hold nothing over him, and no, ‘toxic masculinity’ is not a magic bullet explanation. Granted, when Chiron gets his revenge (on the bully, not Kevin), it’s an immensely satisfying moment, if only because it’s the one point in the film Chiron seems to do something proactive. And of course, it lands him in jail. Yes, the film punishes its protagonist for his one interesting, independent action.

Some people have questioned why Moonlight doesn’t show Chiron and Kevin as having an intimate physical reunion at the film’s end. But frankly, if I were in Chiron’s position, I probably wouldn’t be in a rush to jump into bed with a guy who beat me up in high school, even if he had been the object of my first sexual experience and subsequent fantasies. But then, those experiences wouldn’t have stunted me into a decade of celibacy either. Perhaps I would have been forced into the closet, or drifted from one unsatisfying sexual encounter to another. But celibacy? This is Moonlight betraying its own commitment to realism when it’s convenient for avoiding gay sex. So if it has instead chosen the ‘romantic fan service’ route for its act three, why not just go there? Again, there are many ways to demonstrate physical desire and connection without depicting the deed. Is that kind of tension and gay sexual energy beyond straight director Barry Jenkins’ grasp? Well, no. Clearly not.

Let’s talk about that hand job scene on the beach, because despite everything I’ve said above, it proves that Jenkins is more than capable of imbuing a scene with gay sexual chemistry. It’s a tentative and credible teenager’s first time, and frankly, it’s exciting and pretty hot without ever being exploitative or creepy. It’s the only time Jenkins teases us with such skill. This idea that straight men (or women) can’t or shouldn’t write or direct gay stories is nonsense. But to be effective, that filmmaker or writer needs to understand the gay male gaze and shoot/write accordingly. Good female MM and gay fiction authors work this out very quickly and take it seriously. This falsehood that we’re all ‘fundamentally the same’ is what ultimately sabotages Moonlight, which is a film about a young man’s sexual awakening…with no awakening. We may be equal, but we are not all the same. Not when it comes to sex. Even if we have no contact with the gay world (as Chiron doesn’t), we still see our world – and yes, that means looking at many, many men – through gay eyes, and that needs to be understood if gay movies are crossing over for large straight audiences.

Is that the thought Moonlight finds too confronting to deal with? Is it too confronting for any mainstream straight audience to deal with? In Brokeback Mountain, the sexuality is safely channeled between the two characters, and never manifests much beyond some pretty intense kissing. In Milk, it’s channeled safely into the form of a famous gay activist, even though the film itself is the work of a gay man. In Moonlight, it manifests as a passive child turned man-child we just want to reach out and rescue. All of these are digestible manifestations of homosexuality that don’t require a straight audience to deal with gay sex, or with the idea that gay men are carnal, primal creatures just like their straight counterparts, and that no matter how genteel our behavior, our sexuality imbues the way we look at the world all the time. A film like Moonlight doesn’t need to go all Plata Quemada or Shortbus on us. Though I personally wouldn’t object, that's just not its speed or tone. I get it. But if it treated Chiron like more of a fully realized human being, full of honest, hard-earned desire and anger, I would have found much more to respond to. Alternatively, I could have accepted this chaste character as part of a feel-good movie that indulged such romantic fluff. Jenkins instead shoots for the middle, and so misses both marks.

Not every gay movie has to be Plata Quemada
but if this shot bothers you, that's a problem.

So that leaves Moonlight, perhaps appropriately, being more effective as a symbol than an actual movie, just as Chiron is more of a symbol than a fully realized character. It has delighted many critics, and has left tastefully unoffended mainstream audiences singing its praises, and that’s ideologically significant. Its Golden Globe win is ideologically significant. It has proven that a film about a poor, gay, black man can be a hit, and we can’t overstate the importance of bursting that dam. I just hope Moonlight’s success opens the door for other films just as beautiful, and much, much bolder.

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