The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) hosted a teach-in inspired by the film “Moonlight”, at which presenters discussed themes of queerness and blackness. The event was a part of the Black Lives Matter initiative on the Seattle University campus, featuring Candice Benbow as keynote speaker.
Benbow is currently working on a “Moonlight” syllabus, which is a large collection of readings intended to help the audience explore the themes of the work more thoroughly.
The event had four sessions with three sections led by professors, faculty or students. The event was held on the Trans Day of Remembrance and there was a trans collective art piece on display in the Student Center hearth and a ceremony during lunch.
Seattle U student Olivia Klutse, a fourth year sociology major, led one of the sections in which she looked at how the film produces feelings of empathy in the audience and the impact this has on their expectations of blackness. Klutse said that sympathy is very patronizing and would simply add to the already played-out stereotypical black characters that are most often in films. Empathy, on the other hand, allows the audience to put themselves into the characters’ place, and it breaks down the expectations that the audience has about blackness and black characters.
Klutse also discussed the role of complex personhood, which says that a person is shaped by multiple different experiences and identities. She noted that films tend to reduce black characters by portraying them only as victims or villains or by using negative black stereotypes as the sole identity of the characters. “Moonlight” resists this by sharing the multiplicity of experiences and identities that define the main character Chiron. In fact, the film does not explicitly depict any graphic incidents of racism, though the audience can still feel its implications. Most films are only able to focus on racism when portraying black characters.
“They’re providing insight into the personhood of the black characters, rather than relying on stereotypical black character tropes and relationships,” Klutse said, “It humanizes them and conveys a more multi-dimensional sense of personhood.”
Klutse also presented on the importance of “Moonlight’s” portrayals of black relationships where again complex personhood comes into play, and relationships are defined by multiple experiences. Intimacy is a particularly prominent theme within the relationships of the film one that she said is not typically seen in black relationships in films. “Moonlight” again challenges the audience’s expectations, showing non-sexual intimacy between Chiron and other black men at various points in the film.
At the keynote address, Benbow spoke on digital activism and “Moonlight’s” role in changing it, with her own social media activism and social syllabi as examples.
Benbow spoke about the delicacy of being a black female activist, saying that they must take additional steps simply to be visible and heard. She noted, for example, the fear that black activists have of being arrested when engaging in activism that their white counterparts may not have. This led Benbow to explore alternate avenues of protest, ultimately finding her space in social media.
“It actually became my lifeline in lots of ways when I couldn’t be on the front lines or I couldn’t be in these particular traditional spaces,” Benbow said.
Benbow said that social media serves as a great tool of resistance because it shares what news outlets and leaders will not. This event, and the publication of Beyoncé’s film “Lemonade”, made her think about how social media and pop culture can act as platforms for all kinds of activism.
Most recently, Moonlight inspired Benbow to unpack Chiron’s experience and the effect that the film has on its audience.
“This powerful film has the ability to evoke a feeling—this feeling of what it means to long for and finally find sanctuary—what it means to desire love and space to be yourself and the exhale of finally finding it,” she said.
Benbow recognized, however, that she does not belong completely within the community that the film depicts, as she is not a queer man. Thus, she brought in submissions from black men sharing their own stories of how Moonlight impacted them. Benbow sees this work as activism, as it shares stories of others’ reality.
In the final moments of the discussion, Benbow asked the audience to find their own forms of protest that speak to them and their multiplicity of identities, keeping with the multiplicity of Moonlight’s characters.
“My favorite part about the movie is that he doesn’t go through any fantastic circumstances or anything,” said second year pre-major Nahdia Bell in response to the relatability of the story and characters in the film. “It’s not unrealistic to me and I think that’s what makes it easier to talk about.”
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