A few nights ago I witnessed a filmic and social achievement having attended the movie "Get Out", written and directed by Jordan Peele of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele. On the surface Get Out, is a social thriller which blends comedy, horror with an ironic sardonic larger than life commentary on race, sex, and pop culture. However a closer dissection of the film reveals ideas which resonate on a deeper level. The main character, Chris (played by actor Daniel Kaluuya) takes audiences on a journey of horrors uniquely colored by race and gender. The onscreen damage for the main character Chris is compounded by his undigested trauma from childhood caused by the death of his mother and his prevailing feelings of abandonment. A featured film which tackles complex human emotions such as this immediately piqued my curiosity and sent me in search for answers.
The night before Get Out, I watched with wonder the cliffhanger ending of the 89th Academy Award ceremonies where the top honor for Best Picture was originally given to the film La La Land, and then ultimately to its proper winner, the film, Moonlight. The famed director Ava Duvernay described Moonlight as, "A $1.5 million indie film about a black, gay, poor man". The palpable reality of this movie cannot be underscored enough. Moonlight, features the main character Chiron and his steady deterioration from physical and emotional abandonment in his youth to victim of extreme bullying in his teenage years to greater trauma as an adult. To watch Chiron's moments of life crisis on screen is like watching a series of violent hit and run accidents in slow motion.
After Get Out, I arrived back at home settling in for the night to begin processing it all. My gut instinct told me that there was a shared essence found in both of the stories -- each main character running from a painful past. Two films, completely different in tone and execution, but both are films which seek less to entertain and more to present hard truths. I then began to think that the zeitgeist of this moment and the conceit of these two films is that they both present different facets of the emotionally and psychologically wounded Black man.
But let's rewind here a bit and start over. First this isn't another essay written to defend the black identity or black masculinity. Being emotionally wounded isn't a black thing per se. This also is not an attempt to out intellect the intellectuals. Scholars like Bell Hooks, Ta Nahesi-Coates and others have provided insight and analysis with the issues that confront the lives of African-American men and boys. But typically the emotions of African-American men and boys are portrayed in the media as suffering from anger and rage. The irony, it has occurred to me, is that in the world of highly sexualized, overly comedic, overly violent or entertaining Hollywood movies featuring people of color, here were two films involving men of color celebrated for how they expose hard truths and offer healing. This was worth exploring.
Today's black man and our tortured tormented past. The everyday traumas of black life in America and then some. Harboring the guilt, shame and regret from our sojourn in America. From our decimation in the middle passage and forced bondage, to being declared less than a man as slaves, through to the era of Jim Crow -- separate and unequal. The timeline of black men in America has gone from the depths of Kunta Kinte's reassignment to Toby, through the invention of Yeezus in Kanye West. Through it all, the pervasive mindset is that as men we should hold inside our struggles and pain. Burdens and brokenness are not to be shared with others; everyone has their own life to deal with.
So many Black men live as if their lives are tombs. Emotions, aspirations, longings, anxieties, complexities, mistakes, failures and imaginations are buried along with our truest selves. We are denied the ability to heal, to lead healthy relationships, to make amends for our errors, to be intimate, to be fully human, to be alive. Generations of black boys and men are walking around with turmoil swelling inside them, ready to explode at any minute. "The violence done to black boys is the abusive insistence, imposed on them by family and by society, that they not feel," the famed author Bell Hooks writes in Rock My Soul. But the costs of living inauthentic lives are hefty.
Chris and Chiron from Get Out and Moonlight respectively are no different. Their struggles represent those of many men of color who are bombarded with the generational trauma associated with being Black in America. For Tarell Alvin McCraney, watching "Moonlight" isn't the wonderfully transformative experience it is for film critics shouting its praises from the rafters. It's emotional. It's painful. It's struggle embodied. After all, the movie is quite literally his life playing out onscreen, just with actors as the men and women he knew and loved some 20, 30 years ago: his drug-addicted mother, and the local drug dealer turned father figure.
Trauma for African-American men emanates from the legacy of capture and forced slavery here in America and continued with decades of American apartheid. As black males courageously confront the roots of their trauma, they can be empowered with a stronger grasp of reality and pursue wholeness and greater happiness. Author Michael Billion summarizes it best, "For Black men our wounds are our wealth. It is through the transmission of our story and our wounds that we encourage others".
Lately, I have been thinking about the ways I interact with other men in my life, especially black men. How well we are at offering each other safety enough to share our at times fragile emotional landscape. Realizing the ways in which the fraternity of manhood has provided limitation over strength. In Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem author Bell Hooks suggests that in today's world "Mental health is the revolutionary frontier for black people."
The valuable aspect of telling these stories is the ability to use them to move beyond victimization and into healing. The present reality is filled with the tremendous opportunity to rethink Black men and their trauma and to turn this moment of vice, into a greater moment of virtue. While films such as Moonlight and Get Out showcase men of color wrestling with their demons, and addressing their wounds, we find the society at large running from them.