Looking at the Obamas: On The Presidential Portraits

Portraits are a tricky subject. So much of what makes a portrait successful has to do with the interplay between viewer and subject. A portrait of someone you’ve never seen before can be easily judged on the merits of its composition alone, while any recognition at all of the subject immediately brings to bear upon the viewing the viewer’s previous knowledge, which necessarily factors in to any judgement as to whether or not the portrait in question is any good. One needs no more evidence than the continued obsession with answering the question of who, biographically, the Mona Lisa was, to understand that a large part of the awe she inspires has to do with her anonymity. Because we don’t know anything about her, we’re free to project onto the lady pretty much whatever we’d like. Because we have only the one example from her catalog of facial expressions, presumably as extensive as the average person’s, we’re able to call her legendary gaze unreadable, intractable. If we knew her, we might know that it is simply the look she gives when she’s tired, or when her children are bugging her, or when she wants to go to bed with her husband. That is, despite its reputation as being so, it’s not really that her look her is unreadable, it’s that we can’t read it. Conversely, the more familiar we are with the subject–the more exposure we have to the subject, especially when that exposure is not quite to the subject itself but rather to the subject as image, which is for most of us the nature of our exposure to famous people–the less likely we are to project anything onto it except what we know to be true.

There are few Americans whose likenesses are as well-known as those of Barack and Michelle Obama, the former President and First Lady of the United States of America. When you make history by becoming the first Black President, you’re bound to get a little press. And few presidents have proven themselves as adept at maneuvering in the media so skillfully–and few first ladies have been so spectacularly up to the task–as these two. Aside from the the sort public appearances that typify most American presidencies–news briefings, public addresses, state dinners, generally being in the news–the Obamas were (and remain, even though they’ve left the White House) frequent guests on talk shows and sketch comedies, and made regular fodder for all manner of blog and magazine outlets. As such, we’ve become uniquely attuned to images of the couple, together and separate. To say that we know what they look like is, I think, a vast understatement; what’s true about people with famous faces is that although you’ve never actually seen them (IRL), you could pick them out of a crowd. The acquaintance is visual, and intimate. This is doubly true in the Internet age, when images of famous people are endlessly redistributed over a range of social media, their various reactions and mannerisms recycled, in memes and gifs, for applicability to a myriad of contexts.

I suspect this has a lot to do with the uproar on certain parts of Twitter over the new portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which were revealed on Monday. Although no one usually cares about such things–the last time “president” and “portrait” were together in an interesting sentence was a few years ago, when Dubya picked up a brush and committed to his canvas a bathroom selfie–the unveiling of these portraits was notable because they are the first portraits of the first Black President and the first Black First Lady to hang in the gallery, and because the Smithsonian made the wise decision of tasking the portraiture to two African American artists. What mostly made news, however, were complaints that the portrait of Michelle Obama bore little likeness to the image of Michelle Obama we recognize.


Mrs. Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, is stunning. Perhaps it doesn’t look exactly like her–I suppose that’s ultimately debatable. The portrait does, however, capture the woman’s essence–her effortlessly regal demeanor, but also her warmth and charm; her humility, but also her gravitas. Michelle Obama is always the woman in the room you most want to talk to, and also the one to whom you are most terrified to speak. So is the woman in the portrait. Perched almost jauntily, with her legs crossed, one hand drawn up to support her chin, she surveys the viewer seriously, her face neither inviting nor standoffish, neither promising or expecting anything. She is neither passive nor engaged. Indeed, it’s something of a triumph that, despite our deep knowledge of what Michelle Obama looks like, Sherald is able to imbue her with something of Mona Lisa’s illegible expression. We’ve seen her smiling, laughing, rolling her eyes, even grimacing. Yet here, her gaze does approach the cacographic, going somewhere past you, the viewer, even as it seems not to exclude you, somehow.

There is, however, another sense in which the Mrs. Obama of Sherald’s portrait is immediately recognizable, and that is Michelle as Fashionista, she who stunned in a custom Brandon Maxwell gown at the 2016 White House State Dinner and Oscar de la Renta for a visit with the Queen of England that same year. More than anything, the portrait references Michelle The Glamazon, draped in a halter-neck gown that does not evoke any specific dress worn by Mrs. Obama so much as it suggests, with its incongruent geometric patterning, its intermittent stripes of color, the utter grandness of its flowing skirt, the high-fashion ethos that informed so much her wardrobe during her years in the White House.

The grayscale effect of the painting is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it muddies Mrs. Obama’s vibrancy. Through that icky gray her tone comes across sickly and pale, her skin a gray, dry version of its real-life always moisturized, ebony hue. It’s hard not to imagine what the effect of Mrs. Obama’s dark skin against the truly lovely blue Sherald has chosen as her background color might have looked like, were it not for the grayscale; instead, the contrast is bland and unappealing, a tepid brown whited out by the gray. Even so, this error detracts only slightly from the portrait’s overall arresting quality.


Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama is somewhat more successful. In it, he is seated on a wooden chair upholstered in red while the leaves and flowers of a large plant threaten to overtake him. In the portrait, Mr. Obama is slightly leaned forward, his arms crossed at the wrists, his left hand grasping the crook of his right elbow while his right hand rests open on his left knee. There is no trace of Mona Lisa’s (or, for that matter, his wife’s) impenetrability in his expression: we know exactly what the man is thinking, or at least we can imagine to our satisfaction that we do. His years in office have wizened him–the graying hair and all of that–yet they have also enlightened him, and enlightenment is sometimes heavy. Surely, Obama’s enlightenment must be polished by everything he’s achieved and burnished, however slightly, by what he did not. It is the portrait of a man with Barack Obama’s legacy: the first Black President, the fabled game changer, that glorious tipping point.

It is not hard to remember the prospect of an Obama presidency when it wasn’t yet a thing, or even when it was still new; what such a thing could mean for America, the progress it portended. To be an American seeing a Black man get elected to the highest office in the land–to see his Black wife and their Black daughters in the White House, and know they were living there–felt as tremendous and historic as it was, and it was easy to believe that it represented a fundamental shift in our national reckoning with race. Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s hard to be equivocal about such matters. It seems fair to say that, in terms of what is possible for Black people to achieve in America, yes, Obama’s presidency changed things. However, it is also true that his presidency ran parallel to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland. The expression on the face of the man in the portrait contains that dichotomy, which is a similar dichotomy to the one which arises when one considers that it was the fact of a Black American president that in many ways stoked the hate and racism that elected the current administration. The man’s expression asks, as so many of us have been, “How are we electing Black men to the presidency but also shooting them dead in the streets?” and it asks, “How have we gone from there”–there being ’08, or even ’12–“to here?”

I don’t know about the foliage that makes up the background (and some of the foreground) of Wiley’s portrait. I do appreciate the bursts of purple and orange and yellow blooms here and there, but this may be because they play into my understanding of Mr. Obama growing up in Hawaii. Still, the way the ivy-like plants grown around his feet and encroach upon his shoulder seem silly to me–a little corny, even. What is it supposed to mean? Is the President emerging from the plant as if from the jungle, thereby linking the modern Black American to his pre-diasporic history? Or is the jungle taking him back? I don’t know what to make of it. Like the grayscale effect in Sherald’s portrait, though to a somewhat lesser degree, I just don’t get it.

It is often more important what a piece of art represents than how well the art represents it. These portraits will ostensibly hang in the National Portrait Gallery for as long the building stands, a constant tribute to the indomitable spirit of Black America and to America’s unique, sometimes contradictory capacity for reinvention. This thought comforts me, as we barrel through a presidency that every day proves itself more horrifying than we could have imagined. Looking at the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which are not perfect portraits, as their subjects are not perfect, I’m reminded of the joy and wonder I felt at the beginning of the Obama Era, the faith I had then that America could truly be “the land of the free,” a place where liberty and justice truly were extended to all. That this is a belief that grows more ragged with each passing day only proves how necessary it is to hold on to. These portraits represent a small tightening of that grasp.




30. Current Events

If this isn’t the country you know, what country did you know? What did it look like to you last week, last month, last year, your whole life?


I grew up in Northern Indiana in a town of something like 50,000 people. Perhaps five miles south of the house I grew up in was an even tinier community called Osceola. I have no memory of a time before I associated the name of that community with outright racism, and the Ku Klux Klan in particular. There, as late as 2001, when I was still in high school, a local Grand Dragon was making headlines and neighbors uneasy for hosting nightly symposiums where he and “sympathizers” would gather to “shoot guns, play games, and burn crosses.” We’ve always said that Indiana is the south of the north, and it’s true: less than 100 miles east of Chicago, the third largest city in the nation, the KKK flourishes. This is a knowledge I grew up with, one that prevented me from ever separating the images of white men assembling in sheets and hoods I saw in history books or the sound of Billie Holiday’s voice as she sang Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze from my present existence. The knowledge kept me, as a child, from an ability to watch Mississippi Burning or American History X without suffering night terrors and fueled a scholarly interest that bordered on obsession in slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Movement. How does anyone interpret American history as anything other than an indictment, for the record, against whiteness? It is a fact that as a child I had frequent, Roots-based nightmares about slavery. That I hung a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr., over my bed, a totem to ward off white devils.

In junior high a boy in my class told me he would never have sex with a black girl or even want to see one naked. This was the same year that Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King kidnapped James Byrd, Jr., and beat him before chaining him to the back of their pick-up truck and dragging him for two miles to his death.

The notion that there could ever be “two sides” to a story involving white supremacist IS a racist notion. The President has basically said, “Whoa, let’s slow down, maybe they have a point.”


Yet David Benioff and D.B. Weiss still want to make a prestige drama about the drama unfolding in our streets. I’m sorry, I mean they want to make a prestige drama that speculates, What if the slavery were still a thing?

At work not long ago I said that black men were out here getting shot simply for driving cars and a white girl who was mad about her diet said, “Oh, only for driving cars?” In a similar vein, a few days later, a different white girl put her forearm against mine and declared herself darker than me. Virtually every day someone accuses me of being sassy.

Over the weekend, a group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Confederate traitors to the Union — not all of them bad people, according to the President — gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest, apparently, that Jews and black people and people of color exist. One of them ran down a crowd of counter-protesters with his car, killing Heather Heyer. This week on Facebook there are actual people defending all this as a matter of free speech.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as history, only current events.

28. An undated entry from a journal I kept in August and September of last year

At lunch on Tuesday S and I were talking about blow jobs. S said he liked to get them and while he didn’t hate to give them, he said he wasn’t exactly crazy about it. I said I was exactly crazy about giving them. We were at LePeep. It was mostly elderly people and the people who look after them, only not-quite elderly themselves, so we were trying to keep out voices down. There was a table nearby full of men in business suits and expensive watches–S said they all had a very “Republican vibe.” Or maybe it was, “conservative vibe.” In any case, we’d smoked a joint at my apartment, S and I, before walking down to LePeep, and we were feeling pretty high by the time we got there, and S hardly ever smokes so he kept laughing and speaking more loudly than necessary. One of the conservative-looking men–the only black guy–turned in his seat several times to look at us.

27. Short essay on eating out

I do not enjoy eating in restaurants because I work in one and I cannot bear to participate in putting someone else through it.

When I do eat out, I tip extravagantly. I’m the friend who checks your credit card receipt and has zero qualms about calling you out for leaving less than twenty percent or who just leaves an extra five or ten dollars on the table just in case. I always try to tip in cash because I know anything left on a credit card is going to get reported and split three or four ways between three or four other staff members who also aren’t getting any practical hourly wage.

When I’m working and people tell me I gave them excellent service it means nothing to me. All it means is that I fulfilled whatever haphazard, half-conceived idea they had about what their dining experience should be, which usually means modifying dishes until they are practically unrecognizable from a dinner they’d have made for themselves at home, only consumed in a setting where for an hour and half they get to confuse themselves for royalty and their servers for servants, apathetic to the messes they leave for others to clean up. The rest of what most people expect when they go out to eat they make up along the way, only deciding that the price of their meal entitles them to something at the point that they realize they don’t have it. And often it is that one intangible, formerly unneeded thing down to which comes the server’s entire night. So you enjoyed yourself. Good. So you were well-served. I’m glad for you. Can I go home now?

I’m taking a vow of celibacy

I’m taking a vow of celibacy. I’ve had it. I’m not fucking anymore guys. I don’t want any more dicks in my mouth. I’m no longer interested in the intimacy of someone else’s body, its scents and noises, its imprudence, its imposition. I just now decided.

I just now decided because about ten minutes ago, apropos of nothing, and sans any sort of alternate greeting, a guy sent me a picture of his cock on Grindr. That’s not why I’ve decided on celibacy–Grindr is the Land of Unsolicited Dick Pics, and I’ve been around long enough at this point to know that a seemingly out-of-the-blue snapshot of a guy’s cock via one electronic medium or another is basically gay-speak for the once-popular “hey man how’s it goin.” In school we used to send tightly-folded notes to our crushes, confessing our emotions and asking if they felt the same. These days, we sends close-ups of our freshly bleached assholes. As Carrie Bradshaw says in the pilot episode of Sex & The City: “Welcome to the age of un-innocence.”

The point is, I wasn’t offended that he sent me the picture. I was offended, however–not to mention mildly repulsed–by the shoestring he’d fashioned into a home-made cock ring. Listen, we all have our kinks and fetishes, and I SUPPORT YOU, but if there’s one thing I can’t get it up for, it’s a cock ring, store-bought or otherwise. Upon seeing the picture, I immediately removed Grindr from my phone, typed up a celibacy contract, printed it off, and signed it. Later today, I’m going to have it notarized. I’m telling you, I’m done.

If you think I’m overreacting, please consider that only a few days ago, I was chatting with a different guy–it was going well, actually, as far as chatting with guys on Grindr is concerned (translation: we managed about ten blocks of text before the photo-sharing commenced, which is significant; I felt like I was being courted, like a straight girl). His face was visible and I didn’t hate it, he was conversant and friendly, and even though I’m prone to interpret any interest at all from a man as a sign that he’s thinking about wifeing me, we objectively seemed to be hitting it off. Once we got to the pic-exchange portion of the evening, though, things took a turn for the worse, when a full-body shot he’d unfortunately failed to crop his feet out of revealed an accessory far different from the other guy’s homemade cock ring, but equally distressing: a county-issued house arrest anklet, black and boxy and unmistakable.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed. It seemed perfectly reasonable to be like, “Are you on house arrest?” The evidence was there, but who knows how recently that photo had been taken. Perhaps he’d been but was no longer legally confined to the perimeter of his parents’ property (yes, he lives with his parents, a common phenomenon among twenty and thirty-something gay men here, which warrants a post of its own). Still, I didn’t want to be rude. By then, I’d already seen homeboy’s dick (moderately sized) and ass (maybe too hairy) and had felt zero compunction about asking him his preferred sexual activities, but somehow, inquiring after his criminal background seemed forward adn gauche. Instead, after suggesting that we get together sometime, I asked (innocuously) if he would be able to travel. (In gay dating, where, in my personal experience, the word “date” has come to encompass anything from a formal excursion involving drinks, dinner, and maybe a movie, to a date-like hang-out session consisting of awkward small talk and obligatorily viewing about thirteen minutes of something on Netflix pre-sex so that it’s definitely not a hook-up, to one guy Google mapping the other’s address and showing up for approximately twenty-eight minutes of definitely hooking-up, “can you travel” means do you have a car, at least in cities without adequate public transportation. Its opposite question is, “can you host?”)  He revealed (quite casually, I thought) that no, he couldn’t travel because, yes, he was on house arrest. Since he’d already admitted to living with his parents, it didn’t feel necessary to ask him if he could host, because fucking guys in bedrooms they’ve occupied since they were prepubescent, amongst tarnished soccer trophies and race car curtains, is something I gave up when I turned thirty, thank you very much.

To be clear, I don’t have a whole lot of qualms about hooking up with or even casually dating a man with a criminal record. In fact, there’s like a 90% chance I already have. Frankly, I’m not that choosy, and also, I find felons to be kind of hot. One has to be realistic about these things, especially if the goal is not so much a steady and/or long-term life partner (I don’t think it’s realistic, in my situation) as an occasional companion for casual sex. His home-bound status was hardly reason for disqualification, especially considering that I hardly ever leave my own house. The only difference between our situations is that his is court-ordered and I don’t live with my parents. Nevertheless, the thing about house-arrest anklets is that they don’t come off until you’ve done your time, and something about the thought of having sex with a guy who was wearing one didn’t do it for me. I guess I thought it would be a distraction, that I’d feel it clanking against my own ankles as we rolled in the proverbial hay (or maybe actual hay: he’s a white guy who lives on the outskirts of South Bend, so who the fuck knows what kind of delinquent country bumpkin life he’s leading), alleviating any ability I might have had not to wonder the whole time about what he’d done to land himself in hot-water in the first place (I couldn’t bring myself to ask him outright). Call me old fashioned, but if I’m fucking a guy with a rap sheet, I want the proof to be tear-drop tattoos under his eyes or an proven talent for carving shanks out of bars of soap–not some unfortunate accessory ruining the line of every outfit he owns. As such, I decided that if you’re on house arrest and you want to get up in this? You need to be Shia Labeouf in Disturbia.

So anyway. Celibacy. Really, it shouldn’t be difficult. Abstaining won’t take as much effort as finding someone who doesn’t offend all of my terribly refined sensibilities or who measures up to my really not very high standards. I really cannot express for you what it’s like to be a gay man trying to date (or even fuck) in South Bend, Indiana. There’s the guy who suggested we fuck in his Jeep in the Kohl’s parking lot, or the guy who wanted to fuck me on an un-sheeted mattress on the floor of his unbelievably filthy bedroom, mere feet from a dried but still reeking pile of dog shit, or the guy who invited me over to smoke but failed to warn me that his grandmother was dying on a rented hospital bed in the living room, her oxygen tank hissing rhythmically the entire time he was inside me. There’s the guy I dated for a few months a while back who was such a talented kisser that I didn’t mind that he “wasn’t mobile” (gay-speak for “doesn’t have a car”) and regularly unemployed, until I did. There’s the guy I dated for a shameful nine months (off-and-on), even though he was, I realized about two and a half months in, virtually homeless, or the guy I was seeing last year who used to come over and we’d fuck, yeah, but we’d also have actual conversations and watch Law & Order: SVU and he’d stay the night and we’d wake up together in the morning who I eventually discovered, when I finally got around to looking him up on Facebook after he suddenly stopped replying to my text messages, was married to a bubbly-looking woman with whom he had not one, not two, not three, but four bubbly babies. And I have way worse stories I could tell you, but I’m hanging on to them for now, because something’s gotta go in the memoir.

The thing is, I’ve flirted with celibacy before. Seven years ago when I moved to South Bend from Chicago, I was so depressed at having left he Windy City and so wrecked by an unfortunate relationship with a guy that I had zero interest in sex. I would look at men and feel nothing. I’d jack off a couple of times a month but mostly I got high and read biographies of famous writers and artists and smoked as many cigarettes as I could fit into a day without throwing up. This went on for just over two years, and you know what I learned? A person doesn’t really need to have sex. We think we do, because our culture is permeated with sex. We go around telling our friends, “I haven’t gotten laid in a week,” as if we’re telling them we’ve just been diagnosed with some incurable cancer. In another episode of Sex & The City (yeah, I have a problem), Carrie is horrified when Miranda confesses that she hasn’t had sex in three months, and recently, a straight male friend of mine wondered if he shouldn’t break up with his girlfriend of almost a year because she was going to Europe for two weeks and he wasn’t sure he could “go that long without getting any.” A complete gentleman, he reasoned it was better to break-up with her before she left than cheat on her while she was gone.

There’s no shortage of philosophers and sociologists and other theorists who have written extensively about the correlation between (especially) American capitalism and our modern conceptions of sex/love–I’m thinking, for instance, of Beatrice Preciado, writing in her essay Pharmaco-pornographic Politics: Towards a New Gender Ecology, “The mutation of capitalism that we see in our time can be characterized by the conversion of ‘sex,’ ‘sexuality,’ ‘sexual identity,’ and ‘pleasure’ into objects used for the political management of life, and also by the fact that this ‘management’ itself takes place through the innovative dynamics of advance techno-capitalism.” We are bombarded with sex and sexualization at every pop-cultural turn, and even when we’re not, we’re thinking about it because suddenly it’s taboo. Look, I like to get off as much as anyone, but as someone who gave it up for a while, I’m telling you, there are other things. Sure, I was in the midst of a near-crippling depressive episode, but my depression typical manifests itself in poor sexual decisions, not zero sexual decisions. I’m not saying it’ll be the easiest thing in the world. I’ll get horny watching Game of Thrones or Flip or Flop (mmm TAREK) and wanna find someone to bang and I might even download Grindr or any of the other apps gay men are using to find each other these days, but when that happens, I’ll just remind myself of Preciado’s words and take a particularly obnoxious solace in the fact that my celibacy is a choice that exempts me, at least in a small way, from the horrors of late capitalism.



Round Up: June 2017

I’m about a week late, but nevertheless: here’s the run-down on what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to/etc. over the past month.




  • ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
  • WONDER WOMAN (2017)
  • CHRONICLE (2012)
  • THE NET (1995)
  • GOSFORD PARK (2001)


  • ORPHAN BLACK, Season 4 (BBC America, via Amazon)
  • QUEEN SUGAR, Season 2  (OWN)
  • FIXER UPPER (HGTV, via Hulu)
  • SUPERGIRL, Season 2 (WB, via Netflix)
  • I LOVE DICK, Season 1 (Amazon)

Camilla Long Is Wrong About “Moonlight” 

I imagine that Camilla Long, film critic at The Times, is likely spending today licking the wounds she incurred after the thorough dragging she recieved on Twitter this weekend, following her callous, racist, and embarrassing review of the films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. And righftully so! Her review is easily one of the most absurd and offensive things I’ve come across in 2017 that wasn’t from the White House, and Long should be ashamed of herself, both as a person and a “critic.” In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet, so I shall reserve my opinions on Long’s opinions on that film for another time. However, I did see Moonlight, and, aside from being particularly unsettled by the overt racism of Long’s piece, I also disgreed with her non-racist criticisms. She’s wrong about Moonlight. 

The most obvious offense in the piece is Long’s claim that Moonlight could not possibly be “relevant” to an audience she conceives of as mostly “straight, white, and middle class.” The immediate emotional response, of course, is “Fuck you.” The more measured and thoughtful response, though, is to point out just how dispicable this position is. Make make no mistake: this is a racist ideology, and Camilla Long is a racist for espousing it. This is the exact ideology against which last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign railed. This is the exact ideology that has left us with a preponderance of movies about white characters of all stripes, which are often lavished with critical praise despite the actual strengths of their merits (here’s looking at you, La La Land) and a disheartening shortage of equally varied depictions of people of color. That Long apparently considers “being relevant to white people” some sort of requiste for cinematic or artistic accomplishment only further articulates her own racism: such a perspective seems impossible to maintain outside of the lens of white supremacy. That is, Long’s big gripe with Moonlight is that, unlike practically every other movie ever made, it isn’t about affirming whiteness.

Of course, one might expect Long to deny that any such imbalace between the represenations of whites in film (especially Hollywood) and the representations of the rest of us even exists: she insists (so wrongly) that stories like Moonlight, which charts the experiences of Chiron, a gay, black man in Miami, at three different points in his life, have “been told countless times, against countless backdrops.” Both viewer experience and Long’s failure to offer any concrete examples belie this notion. 

Because she’s going out of her way to be racist, Long fabricates several demerits with which to accuse Moonlight. She thinks it is an “interesting disctinction” that Juan, the adult drug dealer who acts as a surrogate father figure for Chiron, keeping the boy safe from both bullies and his drug-addled mother, is middle class himself, and that he is “calm, appreciative, fully ‘woke’ dude living in beautiful interior-designed house,” and one can only assume that by “interesting distinction” she means that it is unlikely. Also confounding, for Long, is the willingness with which Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, shares in the responsibility of looking after Chiron and welcoming him into their home. In both critiques what is made clear is that all Camilla Long knows of blackness is what she’s seen in the movies. Juan and his house are both for Long “too nice” because the only idea she has of a black man who sells drugs is that of one who maybe dresses like Juan, with his baggy clothes and his do-rags, but who possesses all of the anger, violence, hostility, and domestic squalor–the black criminal exterior–that Juan lacks. Long simply cannot reconcile her presuppositions with the images before her. Likewise, her dismay over Teresa’s kindess seems fueled by too many movies in which African American motherhood is at best pitied and at worst vilified (anything from The Color Puple (pitied) to Precious (vilified) to The Help (both)). The representations of black mothers who are both happy women and competent mothers are out there (even if Long hasn’t been exposed to them); however, Long’s views makes clear that these images are no where near as prevelant as their counterparts–even for a woman who makes her living reviewing films. 

Long seems to have missed entirely the point of Moonlight. She calls the picture the film paints of “the African American community’s attitude to gay sex” “one-note,” but the film itself harldy seems interested in representing the attitude of an entire demographic, of either the one-note or textured variety. Rather, it is a very specific tale about the very specific experience of a very specific boy–a specificity rarely afforded to stories about people like Chiron. This specificity is evidenced by the intimate closeness of the filming, which situates the viewer firmly in the world of the film (or should) and what Long calls its “single lines of agonised dialogue,” which is actually spare, striking, even poetic. But Long’s view of black Americans as all members of one ghetto or another again prevent her from seeing Moonlight correctly. Why must it be that the film articulates an African American attitude toward homosexuality and not, for instance, a working class attitude (for Long, the “ghetto”), or even a “heteronormative” attitude (which it certainly is)? Because Long can’t help but generalize blackness, and black people; therefore, she can only deduce generalities from black art. 

That she simply didn’t “get” the movie is evident in her other large criticism, which concerns the film’s fragmented storytelling technique, which Long confuses for meandering plotlessness but which is actually quite successful. The film is broken into three distinct parts. The first part features Chiron as a bullied youth who is taken under Juan’s wing. The second part features Chiron as a quiet, bullied teenager whose burgeoning homosexuality finds expression in a beachside encounter with his friend, Kevin, played against his mother’s harrowing descent into drug addition and his growing relationship with Juan and Teresa. In the film’s third part, Chiron is an adult, now a drug dealer himself, who somewhat spontaneously reconnects with Kevin after several years. 

It is this third part that draws the strongest connection between the film’s vignette form and its content. The flirtation between Chiron and Kevin when they meet as grown men is as endearing as it is weighted with the hesistency and subtlety their lives have taught them is necessary where their sexuality is concerned, and although the actors who play these characters at each stage of their lives bear little physical resemblance to one another, it is impossible to witness the tender touching that ends the film without remembering the violence that has preceeded it. Despite Juan’s apparent acceptance of Chiron’s homosexuality early in the film, the larger society in which he lives has left its mark on Chiron’s psyche. Once bullied for his small size and his gender performance, as an adult Chiron has transformed himself into a massive hulk of guy, appearing even more the drug dealer than Juan, which is enough to suggest an effort to dispense with his old reputation and victimization–that is, to emulate or even exaggerate the notions of masculinity and manhood which had formerly opppressed him (and in this way still do). Affirming this is his confession to Kevin that no one has touched him since that night on the beach. It’s quite obvious that Chiron has insulated himself against both the injustices of his past and the desires of his present; that he has quite literally built himself up as a fortress against them, or a dungeon to keep them in, and that it might be just as easy to continue this way. Just as easy, certainly more convenient, perhaps even safer. 

And yet, he doesn’t. Instead, he goes to visit Kevin. Instead, he lets Kevin touch him, lets himself be touched. Yes, these events are isolated from the events of the film’s first two parts–and those parts from each other–but it is precisely this isolation that drives home Moonlight’s overrarcing point, and one of its triumphs. Camilla Long may want movies that order life into a cohesive chronology that explains the end result, but Moonlight says no. Moonlight resists that. Its anti-narrative is disruptive, even combative, because it has to be: it is queer. This queerness disrupts the narrative structure, which is also necessary, for how to accurately and truthfully convey black and/or queer lives via a structure that oppressives and excludes them? 

Mostly–and perhaps most saddening–is that Long mistakes her racism and her inability to empathize with the black characters of Moonlight (and, I suspect, Hidden Figures) as a failure of the movie to be relevant. As such, she misses what is “universal” about Moonlight: at its core an immensely hopeful film, it says that our pasts don’t have to define us, that our experiences don’t have to be who we are, that we can go a different way. In light of her recent humiliation, such news should seem particularly relevant to Ms. Long.