Trevante Rhodes stars as Chiron in Moonlight Credit: David Bornfriend

When I finally saw the film Moonlight—now nominated for six Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture-Drama—I couldn’t watch it with any sense of comfort or detachment. After about 45 minutes in the theater, I realized I’d been sitting with my fist balled up against my lips. I sat frozen like that until the lights came on.

It wasn’t to keep myself from emoting with so much fervor that I might annoy or disturb fellow moviegoers. Rather, at almost every turn, I held a deep suspicion that something terrible or traumatizing would happen to Chiron, the film’s main character.

Somehow, I had to brace myself—to protect myself.

I wouldn’t call this intuition. It’s something more like expectation.

I came of age on Chicago’s south side as a young, black, queer person who often felt vulnerable about my place in the world. It’s similar, but not identical to what Chiron experiences, with the character coming of age in Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. Like him, it didn’t take me long in life to realize that I was “different,” thanks in part to childhood bullies, bystanders who didn’t intervene, and callous authority figures who often looked the other way.

Words like “soft” and “timid” or “sissy” and “gay” were deployed early on, not so much as labels as attempts to guide me away from developing even remotely feminine affinities, qualities, or character traits. The weight of those words—and the violence I knew could potentially reinforce them—pushed me to do whatever I could to keep my body—and, most of all, my spirit—safe. I learned to fortify.

For Chiron, fortifying means learning to run and hide from his bullies, remaining as quiet and inconspicuous as possible so that others will just let him be, and eventually building a fortress composed of rippling muscles, a do-rag, grills, and a bosslike status on the streets.

With age, and in different contexts, his protective mechanisms change. So did my own.

I sought refuge with older adults and family members who engaged me without judgment, took self-defense classes, picked up sports, pretended to be attracted to girls for as long as I could, and sought to overachieve so that I’d be self-sufficient and respectable. But it was never enough.

There’s a hidden danger, I’ve learned, in living and coping this way. When your identities are labeled dangerous or undesirable, those soul-murdering messages get internalized as a call to jettison your “bad” parts. And often we do—for the sake of survival. At a certain point, constantly policing your marginalized identities can mean running farther and farther away from yourself. In the purging, a message resounds: “I, in my truest state of being, am not worthy of love.”

At a certain point, constantly policing your marginalized identities can mean running farther and farther away from yourself.

Moonlight‘s most powerful moments—such as when Chiron learns how to swim and float in the water—are both visually striking and symbolically rich. Its performances soar, including that of Mahershala Ali as Juan, whose tenderness and care for Chiron complicates most tropes about drug dealers. Or that of Naomie Harris as Paula, Chiron’s mother and a woman who, as Robert Jones Jr. wrote at Essence, is “dealing with her own demons and torn between her love for him and her fear of what he is.”

But what I appreciated most about the film was how—in its simplicity, and in the way it prioritized intense emotion over extended dialogue—Moonlight encouraged me to continue grappling with a question: If I strip away my self-protecting veneer, who am I underneath?

In the film, a similar question is posed in a conversation between Chiron and his closest childhood friend, Kevin.

During their formative years, each man copes with expectations of black manhood differently. Eventually they share a sexual encounter. But their parallel paths diverge after one of Chiron’s bullies force them into a violent confrontation—a physical pissing match of sorts.

When they meet again as adults, they’ve changed. Kevin—who also desired women as a teenager—has an ex and a baby. Meanwhile, Chiron has hardened his exterior, embodying Juan’s model of masculinity. He’s nothing like he was before.

Then, Kevin renders the all-important question: “Who is you, Chiron?”

The hard work involved in arriving at an answer may take Chiron months or years—perhaps a lifetime. We don’t get to witness him doing this work before the film ends. But it’s labor he’s worthy of doing—and that we’re worthy of doing for ourselves.

By working our way through the forces that have caused us to suppress who we are, we can begin a journey toward truly loving ourselves, knowing we’re worthy of love from others, and maybe even being able to share our love with those who need it.

And bit by bit, after navigating so much darkness, we allow the light of our true essence to shine even brighter.   v