Impossible Imaginings

I preface this post by asking you to go and watch Moonlight as soon as you possibly can (trailer). I watched the film a few nights ago and have been thinking a multitude of things ever since. A story about queer black men in Miami is what was broadly depicted. In of itself that would have been refreshing and deeply important, but it was also more than that, and told more than that.

I suppose what has blown everyone away is the way the film managed to allow and make room for black male characters to be complex and multifaceted and vulnerable and tender in a way we rarely get to see in the media. It managed to talk about blackness as more than solely a relation to whiteness – but, in my brother’s words, with perhaps the recognition of the violence of whiteness captured in its invisibility. It captured the workings of cycles of violence and the coercions of silence without ever becoming didactic. A deeply obvious but also deeply important thought hit me in the opening sequence of the film: of course, you can only have humanised black characters when you have multiple black characters. The reason black and people of colour rarely get to exist complexly in the media is because we rarely get to exist as more than just “black” or “people of colour”.

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[Screenshot from the film of character Juan carrying child Chiron in the sea.]
I left the cinema and marvelled to my friend that I had never seen a film like that. It made me wonder about all the films I have never seen, and probably will never see… all the realities that have not been represented and therefore remain imagined as unimaginable.

Many weeks ago I watched a feel-good coming of age film about a white girl in America and I left the cinema wishing that one day I’d see a simple coming of age story about a Muslim girl who gets to be more than just that, but is fully immersed in being that. Moonlight set the bar a million times higher. Previously I had simply wanted the representation of a palatable, attractive, empathisable Muslim character, but now I was hungry for more. I wanted a flawed and contradictory character, a character afforded nuance and life in its myriad of emotions. My mind flew to all the people in my life and in my past who films will never be written about, and all the impossible realities they traverse. I thought about myself and the bravery that would be required to tell a story of flaws and nuance in a climate where the complexity of my personhood is not allowed.

I spent an hour talking to my brother about the film and we concluded that the stories that we most wanted to see were the ones that had to be told by people who are not yet going to be directors or screenwriters, or whose scripts might not entertain. The stories we wanted to see were ones we knew and loved of people who have never been allowed to exist complexly. People depicted always as two-dimensional and as already ‘known’. Brown boys who remain statistics about poor exam results; children who exist as glaring socio-economic flaws; absent marks on registers; sleeping bags on streets; girls who aren’t white so no news outlets remark on them going missing; bodies that don’t make sense; desires that are not afforded the possibility of existence.

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[Screencap from the film, Chrion and Kev sit on the beach.]
I realised then that it does matter whose stories we get to see. It matters because what is possible is often what is imaginable; and what is imaginable is only so because we know about it. Moonlight showed us that with black masculinity; it provoked us to afford multifacetedness to characters we usually pretend to know. It provoked me to question whether I allow others the multifacetedness I allow myself… I know I do not. There is a definite arrogant irony in the way I wish for the world to know my complexity and make space for my contradictions and nuances but I remain miserly in the way I think about others.

To push for the complexity and humanising of more stories and characters is to push for the complication and nuancing of all stories and characters.

I wonder who will write the stories I want to see and I think about the way I sometimes feel I do not, or cannot, write anymore. It means something to not want to say something. Sometimes it means the language does not exist to say what has to be said, and sometimes it means that the silence is what has to be said. And then I think about the quietness of Moonlight. How it said so much by saying so little. Life is a little like that isn’t it? Sometimes the most important things we have to say are the ones we can’t find words for but which, in hindsight, are apparent in every gap in the story and every failure of language. Audre Lorde says our silences will not protect us, so perhaps it is time for some (who can afford to) to relinquish the safety of silence and the validation of a white voyeur; and instead tell the stories that are thought to be impossible. Maybe that is how we go on: by making new possibilities imaginable.

One thought on “Impossible Imaginings

  1. You’re so right. One, that “Moonlight” is a great film. If “LaLaLand” wins Best Picture over “Moonlight,” no amount of political speeches at the Oscar podium will save the Academy Awards from triteness. Two, more importantly, yes, to the complexity issues you address. We don’t need any more caricatures or symbolic figures or token representations: We need real, deep, complex people with flaws and treasures, painful contradictions, engaged with similarly flawed and noble beings. No more token Black cop, Muslim terrorist, even Black Chief of Police or Muslim anti-terrorism operative. Full human beings. In full color. In bright lights and shadows. No more cartoons. No more fake heroes or villians. Thank you.


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