Prisoners of Masculinity


manchester moonlight

Two films vying for the best picture award at next Sunday’s Critic’s Choice Award are Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Each has garnered a number of distinctions already. Moonlight, Barry Jenkin’s  character study of a black man born and raised on the mean streets of Miami, was chosen as best picture by both The New York Film Critics Circle Award and the LA Film Critics Award committees. Manchester, Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama set in present day New England and a breakout film at Sundance, won the National Board of Review Award.

Both films are positioned to be selected as nominees in the Best Picture Category by the Academy Awards Committee which will make its announcement on January 24th. The Oscars are on February 26th.

On the surface, these films don’t seem to have much in common, despite the fact that both are based on strong original scripts (the directors are also the screenwriters) and both have outstanding performances in roles large and small.

Moonlight follows the life of a young man born to a dope addict mother in a non-glamorous neighborhood of Miami, most likely Overtown. The story selects three slices of the life of Chiron, who as a six year old is nicknamed Little and as a man in his late 20s is called Black. Chiron is his moniker in high school. Improbably befriended and protected by a neighborhood drug dealer, the sullen youngster divides his time between the home of his inattentive mother and the drug dealer’s amiable girlfriend. At one point the sensitive child wonders in front of the protector whether he is gay. He has heard the word on the street but has no notion of what it means.

In high school the slender and shy youth is bullied mercilessly by his homophobic classmates, dudes whose reputations are enhance through taunting and gay bashing. Chiron is both relieved and confused by a furtive and brief ocean-side encounter with Kevin, one of his classmates. Kevin denies the encounter and aligns himself with Chiron’s tormentors.

In the third section, Black returns to Miami after a number of years in Atlanta. There’s a strong hint that he’s kept body and soul together through criminal activity. He’s no longer the skinny kid; he’s buffed, tattooed, and decked out in bling.  And yet, he still has not solved the challenge of his sexual identity as a painful reunion with Kevin, no a respectable married man who works as a cook after a short stint in jail, makes clear. A prolonged dialogue with Kevin in a restaurant booth shows how the 30 year old is no better off than his former six year old self. From the beginning a quiet child, he still lacks the vocabulary and more importantly the courage to express how he feels. He’s a most inarticulate of protagonists, although the three gifted actors who play the part do amazing things to suggest what his inner life is like. He’s a prisoner of the neighborhood’s notions of what a man is and what a man can and should do. The ethos of homophobia, perhaps more acute in low-income black areas, stifles tenderness much less simple expressions of shared humanity.

Another prisoner of restrictive notions of masculinity is Lee, the central character of Manchester. He’s a fisherman, with his brother-partner, off the overfished Massachusetts coast. He’s hanging on by a slender financial thread, trying to support a wife and four young kids. His world is a homosocial world. He spends time at the local bar, where he’s inclined to pick fights with strangers who dare to take a look at him, and he invites the boys to his house for late night carousing, much to the displeasure of his beleaguered wife. At the opening of the film he’s working as janitor for the owner of four multi-unit apartment buildings and, as an exercise in self-punishment, working through the guilt that he feels for causing a family tragedy. When his brother designates in his will that Lee should serve as guardian for his teenage son, Lee resists. When he reluctantly takes on the role, it’s yet another form of self-chastisement rather than an opportunity for redemption.

Manchester is north of Boston, in Hawthorne country. Lonergan’s script follows in the groove of the 19th century fiction writer who offered many portraits of men tormented by guilt, guilt sometimes taken on without cause, guilt disproportionate to the offense.

What links Manchester to Moonlight is the damned up emotion of the characters. Lee too is an inarticulate man, though Casey Affleck does a fine job suggesting the kinds of wheels that are spinning underneath the trouble face. He stammers, he breaks his sentences in mid-stream, he easily gives up on making sense to his conversational partner. He impulsively breaks a bedroom window and turns the care of his precocious, charming, and mildly disturbed nephew (an ordinary teenage in many ways) into a countless round of quarrels and disagreements. He can’t find an alternative between authoritarian guardian and disinterested companion. And he is flummoxed when his ex-wife extends an olive-branch and when the mother of his son’s girlfriends expresses an interest in him.

It might be easy to think that Lee is just the kind of parochially-bound, financially-strapped, and grievance-filled and parochial citizen to cast a vote for Donald Trump, but he’s too numbed by his personal history and too preoccupied by his own self-flagellation to be interested in politics.

Curiously another likely Oscar contender, Fences starring Denzel Washington, offers another portrait of male frustration, of a life stunted by circumstances. Opening on Christmas day, Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same title. In a series of ten plays, each set in a different decade, Wilson has tried to capture the full range of the African-American experience. Fences is set in 1950s Pittsburg and is a story of a once gifted baseball player, restricted by the color line to play in the Negro Leagues, who now works as a garbage man. The sparks are provide when the 53 year old Troy tries to foil the sports ambitions of his son, Cory. One of Wilson’s gifts is the ability to capture the range and nuances of African-American vernacular, so don’t expect the same kind of incapacity for language that we find in Chiron and Lee.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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