Representation Matters

Black Men Are Allowed Complexity: Exploring Black Masculinity in Film and Television

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Historically, Black men have endured stigma and fetishization because of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, systemic racism, and death. Consequently, Black men onscreen are categorized as violent, misogynistic, and homophobic. Yet the reality of people socialized as Black men—whether cisgender and heterosexual, cisgender and queer, or trans and nonbinary—is that their vulnerability is socially and politically treated as being malleable and mythologized. Unfortunately, Black men despite the intricacies and layers of their identity, are still treated as a monolith. 

If one is to peruse social media, dating apps, numerous comment sections, or has received disrespectful DMs, they would realize that Black men are and historically have been the victims of epistemic harm. Black men, and those who are Black and assigned male at birth, are not allowed to verbalize harm, fear, or critique the social constructions of patriarchy, misogyny, and queerphobia. But onscreen, we’re finally starting to be asked to grapple with the ways that Black men deal with intimacy, care, and what it means to be vulnerable. 

In the 2016 film Moonlight, The main character Chiron is portrayed by three different actors (Alex Hilbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) to represent Black boyhood, Black male adolescence, and Black manhood. I see the film as not just a bildungsroman following Chiron as he moves toward an acceptance of his sexuality, but a story of his journey through and against America’s white supremacist and patriarchal culture. 

Moonlight is an intertextual example of Black male vulnerability and encounters possible solutions for narratively theorizing about Black males. However, current Moonlight scholarship focuses on when Chiron, as a boy, asks Juan (Mahershala Ali), a masculine, Black man who is a drug dealer that takes Chiron under his wing and even teaches him how to swim, “What is a f*ggot?” 

Photo credit: “Moonlight” / A24

Chiron asks this question while he is sitting at Juan’s kitchen table across from both Juan and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe). What Juan says in response to Chiron’s question is “It is a word that makes gay people feel bad.” Chiron quickly realizes that the word is meant to make people—including himself—feel less than, but he is too young to quite grasp what it means to be gay. 

When Chiron asks his question, Juan answers him as both a person who deeply cares about Chiron and as the voice of masculine Black men by stating: “You can be gay, but don’t let anybody call you a f*ggot.” Juan’s intention is not only to empower Chiron, but to let him know that no one has the right to disrespect him. The takeaway from this moment of Chiron asking this question, as Teresa and Juan answer him, is the intersection of vulnerability, care, Black sexuality, and masculinity. The significance of the question is so poetically piercing because Juan and Teresa know that Chiron must live and function in not just a world that is homophobic, but also rife with anti-Black terror. 

The FX show Pose was lauded as a groundbreaking series due to its centering of Black and Brown queer and trans people and their stories. Yet the series is threaded with the historical and contemporary trauma of HIV/AIDS, queer and transphobia, and anti-Blackness. Despite this, the shroud of sorrow that follows the show did express joy and love. Pose also tackled misogyny and sexism within a queer- and Black-centered context. 

Photo credit: “Pose” / FX

After Blanca (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez) and Electra (Dominique Jackson) tell Pray-Tell (Billy Porter) that he and the all-male ball council’s requirements for categories fed into sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic tropes of stereotypical women and men, we see the episode “In Her Shoes,” force Pray-Tell to confront his internalized misogyny, femmephobia, and transphobia. We learn he was often called a “f*ggot”, “sissy”, “punk”, or “soft” in the past. He confesses this to his partner, then dresses in drag to triumphant applause.

The Netflix series The Upshaws, is based on a working-class family in Indiana that in many ways follows stereotypical tropes of Black working-class families. The eldest son Bernard (Jermelle Simon) is gay and he comes out to his parents. His mom, Regina (Kim Fields), is accepting, but his father, Bennie (Mike Epps), struggles with his son’s truth. 

Photo credit: “The Upshaws” / Netflix

It isn’t until they get in the ring and spar that they address Bernard’s sexuality. Boxing, a masculine trope used to “hash or punch it out,” is the way that in a world in which Black men have to fight racism, and in Bernard’s case homophobia, they can release their rage. Yet Bennie tells Bernard that he will always love him because he is his father, and that his sexuality doesn’t change that. It is later revealed that Bernard fathered a child with a high school sweetheart and that further solidifies Bennie and Bernard’s relationship. 

When will Black men be allowed to express variations of masculinity not yet seen onscreen?

Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Ben Stoss (Hazz Sleiman) in Marvel’s Eternals are examples of how—even in the imaginary world of comics—imagine Black male love and vulnerability. The film shows viewers how a Black man can be a superhero, a father, and a partner. Phastos, a dark-skinned, Rubenesque Black man, is in love with a man of Arab descent. Their love for each other and for their son (Esai Daniel Cross) shines onscreen, highlighting how Black male love and vulnerability can be beautifully displayed. 

Photo credit: “Eternals” / Marvel

When will Black men be allowed to express variations of masculinity not yet seen onscreen? Will they be able to express empathy, care ethics, and the ability to nurture and cultivate people and other living beings? If so, will it translate to how society sees Black men and boys as complex beings that are allowed to define themselves for themselves?

I look to film and television to open up that possibility for Black men and boys.♦

Anwar Uhuru (they/their/he) is an academic that writes about how race, gender, sexuality, and ableism impacts Black people. Their forthcoming book, ‘The Insurrectionist Case for Reparations: Race, Value and Ethics’, will be published through SUNY Press.

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