The Black queer experience, on screen and off
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Bosi Moragia
Last month, I watched Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. I cried the whole way through. The white man sitting next me was only vaguely concerned. My best friend offered to let me Iyanla heave into her bosom, but the theatre seating at the TIFF Bell Lightbox didn’t allow for it, so I powered through.
My tears weren’t for Timothée Chalamet’s dazzling on-screen transformation into Elio Perlman — a skittish yet precocious virtuoso contending with the age-old queer adolescent dialectic between sensuality and cynicism — even though, really, give the man and his pentagonal facial symmetry an Oscar already. My tears weren’t for Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s stunning cinematography either. As a continental African, my fight or flight response is usually activated when films are set in any country that had a seat at the table at the Berlin Conference — which, if you didn’t know, divided the continent up among European powers. Mukdeeprom, to his everlasting credit, made the 1970’s Italian countryside look like how peaches taste.
My tears weren’t even for Sufjan Stevens’ original soundtrack compositions, though if I’m being honest, maybe they were just a little bit. Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” is the dimly lit melancholia anthem that the gays deserve — because queerness is melancholia and rarely fun outside of Twitter — and I’ll be the first one to play it at the bashment.
Truthfully, my tears weren’t for any aspect of the movie. In a very real and existential way, they were for the Black queers who look blue in the moonlight and Chiron, the boy from the Oscar-winning film Moonlight and the Call Me By Your Name was the love story Chiron deserved.
I don’t know if anybody in the greater heterosexual world or the whiter homosexual one knows this, but the Black queer experience is intrinsically in its own stratosphere. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s sociological intersectional theory does a perfect job of explaining this — even though non-Black feminists tried their best to pry it from us. Over my Black queer body.
Crenshaw proposes that every individual lives within a multiplicity of identities that all simultaneously interact with each other. It challenges selectivism directly, retiring the ‘let’s focus on x before y’ approach of prioritizing oppressions that certain activisms have used when fighting structural oppression. It also seeks to dismiss the myth that the overlap of people’s identities does not contribute to their experience in life.
As Audre Lorde succinctly put it, “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” It just is what it is. That is to say, the way that Black people’s queerness interacts with the world is heavily informed by our Blackness. It’s an interaction that is woven with loneliness, abrasions, and hesitations, but also lavish joys — all of which form a beautiful tapestry of begrudging yet intentional resistance.
This is why Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is important to the Black queer coming-of-age narrative. It is also why Little, the youngest version of Chiron portrayed so effortlessly by a forlorn Alex Hibbert, is still my screensaver about a year and a half after the film’s release.
A question I love asking other Black gays is, “Which Chiron are you?” This almost works as well as astrology, wallahi, because the answer to the question is the window into the soul of someone’s queer experience.
Chiron, the character we see evolve in a series of three dysphoric segments, is distinct in every iteration of himself. As a young boy, Little is sequestered into a kind of forced introversion. He, like many Black queer children, understands there is something faceless, something different scratching on the surface of his personhood, but he doesn’t quite understand that others can sense it too. Little is the Black queer child who was taught to hate himself, who internalized the uneasiness that children and adults alike projected onto them and into their sense of self. Little is Black, poor, and the son of a crack addict — his story is a manifestation of the kind of childhood that is not your own to live, of fraught but still pulsing parental relationships, of certain traumas that set in your bones before you learn how to spell them.
Chiron, the adolescent version in the trio, becomes an extension of Little, whose unresolved despairs stretch out onto actor Ashton Sanders’ six-foot frame in the second part of the film. Chiron is for the Black queer people whose sullen weariness follows them into adolescence, or conversely, for the Black queer people who discovered their queerness during that time; they feel burdened with a quiet hysteria and self-imposed isolation at the thought of having desires incongruent with the norm. Chiron is for those who laughed awkwardly or a little too heartily at cafeteria gay jokes, for those who learned to only cringe internally at high school lexicons peppered with terms like ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke.’ Chiron is repressed queer sexuality, like the ghost of silent crushes that never came into fruition, the classroom chairs we dreamed of wielding to show our bullies that we could hit back, too.
Maybe Black, the final and briefest instalment of Chiron, functions both as a cautionary tale and pleasant prediction of what Black queer adulthood entails. Maybe Black, like many of us, fought ferociously into adulthood and traded his softness as a result, receding into a caricatured ‘straight’ version of himself. Black shows us what we stand to lose from assimilation into Black cisgendered heteropatriarchy, but he also lets us know that it’s okay to do whatever is ultimately best for our survival.
So, which Chiron are you? No matter your answer, he deserved better. The Black queer experience is far from homogenous, but generally, we tend to navigate our sexuality through the undercurrent of postcolonial violence: poverty, new religions that castigate our queerness, sociopolitical anti-Black phenomena that tether us firmly to a community that doesn’t make space for us at the best of times. The list is infinite.
Call Me By Your Name was beautiful. Caucasian excellence, dare I say? But I refuse to absorb the fantasticality of it all in a vacuum. I cannot do that knowing full well that the Tarell Alvin McCraney-adapted play that became Moonlight was nearly autobiographical, while the author of the original novel Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman, is an alma mater of Harvard University, and his father owned a knitting factory.
I wish that Chiron wasn’t prematurely rendered mute by the ways of the world — that he could articulate his needs in not one, not two, but three languages like Elio. That he too could vacation in northern Italy and be left to traverse the anxieties of burgeoning sexuality in a villa in the countryside. I wish that Chiron didn’t have to parent himself, and I also can’t help but wonder what trajectory his life would’ve taken if he had experienced that rousing, consoling self-acceptance speech given to Elio by his father. What would his path have been like if he too had had a constant and reliable guardian, and not one thrown into and similarly expelled from his life by sheer chance, like Juan. What if Chiron and his lover Kevin weren’t forcibly separated by mass incarceration but by timing and circumstance instead, as were Elio and Oliver?
I have all the questions and none of the answers.
What I’m trying to say is that my Black queer tears yearn, in continuum, for a reality in which others like me can contend with our queerness in relative peace like Elio Perlman — where trauma, violence, and rejection aren’t badges of honour. Call Me By Your Name is the coming-of-age tale every Black queer adult should have had, and more pressingly, the love story Chiron deserved.