‘Who is you, Chiron?” Kevin asks his childhood friend toward the end of Barry Jenkins’s film “Moonlight.” The question comes after they have been reunited in their late 20s following a decade apart marked by prison time and massive personal change. In the asking, Kevin voices the profound concern at the heart of a film that is rightfully being touted by many as the best movie of the year.
It would be tempting to categorize “Moonlight” as a coming-of-age story about a gay, inner-city, African-American man, but that would be confusing its form for its essence—a bit like describing “Citizen Kane” as a biopic about a media tycoon. “Moonlight” is set in an African-American community in Miami that is plagued by addiction and poverty, but its resonance extends far beyond that. Through his main character, Chiron—depicted episodically as a young boy, a teenager and a young adult—Jenkins has created a heartbreaking meditation on manhood, suffering and the boundless ache for human connection.
Growing up with a crack addict mother and fending off bullies, Chiron speaks so sparingly that he’s practically mute. But in the hands of Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes—who play Chiron at different stages of life—the character is imbued with an almost operatic voicelessness. With so little to say, Chiron’s face and body language are like open wounds radiating subtle waves of pain, confusion and vulnerability more than any dialogue could possibly convey.
Chiron explains to his friend that since their last encounter as teenagers, “I built myself back up from the ground up to be hard.” Hard and soft are the polarities upon which Chiron’s life teeters, and he understands which one determines survival. He lives in a world where manhood is defined by violence, control and domination.
This reductive vision of masculinity defines the dangerous streets Chiron lives on, but that same spirit is just as recognizable on Wall Street and suburban Main Street—not to mention in the tone of our politics, which now overflow with everything from strongman posturing to innuendo about “hand size.” Regardless of the setting, the consequences of this distortion are deadly.
“The very phrase ‘Be a man’ means, ‘Don’t feel it.’” the psychotherapist Terrence Real has said regarding his book I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. Real believes “typically male” problems—like alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, failures in intimacy—are linked to a “covert depression” in men. “We tend not to recognize depression in men because the disorder itself is seen as unmanly,” he writes. “Depression carries...the stigma of mental illness and also the stigma of ‘feminine’ emotionality.”
Jackson Katz, the documentarian behind “Tough Guise,” posits that school shootings and rampage killings—98 percent of which are committed by men—are not simply a crisis of guns and mental illness but a masculinity issue as well. “The weapon becomes an integral part of how men and boys try to establish and prove they’re real men," he says, “especially when they’re scared and their manhood is under attack.”
Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, says one problem is conflicting definitions of masculinity. “If you were to ask men...what does it mean to be a good man, they’ll all tell you: honor, integrity, responsibility,” Kimmel told The New York Times. “But ask what it means to be a real man, and we’re talking about never showing your feelings, never being weak...winning at all costs, getting rich, getting laid.”
This lack of connection does not bode well for men in a globalized world that is sprinting toward greater competition, complexity and nuance. Of course, counterexamples turn up that reflect a more complicated vision of manhood, whether it’s the bromance comedies of Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen or an iconic artist like Bruce Springsteen, whose recent autobiography painfully recounts the deep depression from which he has suffered for years.
Cultural archetypes and expectations formed over generations do not change easily, but if we continue to exclude essential relational values like sensitivity and emotional connection from our definition of what it means to fully be a man, we will doom men to a state of perpetual war not only with others but with their own humanity.