Written by Alex Zhang ’18
It was the night of January 8, 2017 and the Golden Globe Awards were nearly over. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle), a musical starring two of Hollywood’s young stars had tap danced across the stage throughout the night, pulling in award after award. A year of turmoil in Hollywood over racial diversity, representation, and whitewashing had rocked the industry. One award remained: best motion picture drama.
Only two months earlier, in November, hundreds of students lined up outside the Whitney Humanities Center for an early screening of the movie that would win that award: Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins). Two months before that, in September, to audiences just as large and excited, African American artist Carrie Mae Weems debuted a show co-sponsored by The Center for the Study of Race Indigenity and Transnational Migration (RITM), Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, which addressed similar themes relating to black life in America. The Yale Repertory Theater connected these two works, too. Ms. Weems premiered Grace Notes at the Yale Rep in the fall of 2016, and Tarell Alvin McCraney—who wrote the play that inspired Moonlight—will join the Yale Rep as playwright-in-residence in July.
Here is a film and a performance about black life—childhood, womanhood, manhood—for a nation reckoning with black death—in schools, prisons, neighborhoods. Moonlight follows a boy named Chiron as he grows into a man, falls into prison, and comes out alive. Grace Notes laments the loss of African Americans across time in a nation divided by Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
But Grace Notes and Moonlight are about black growth, too, not just black survival. The visual experiences of the two pieces reflect this. The performers in Grace Notes move carefully throughout the sparse set, and stillness is the rule. A clock on the wall ticks as the performers mourn Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and many more who have been killed by the police. They reflect, remember, and ponder. Life must go on, they insist.
When she was thirty-six, Ms. Weems created a triptych titled “Blue Black Boy” for her series Colored People (1989-1990). The piece depicts the same portrait of an African American child’s face three times in separate frames, as if in a repeating mugshot. “Where is the boy now, in 2017?” one is pressed to ask. Did his life stop after the photographs were taken? Did he have a future?
Moonlight provides one possible answer this question. The film’s poster shows the main character Chiron as a child, teen, and adult. Rather than show an image of Chiron at one point in his life, the poster features a composite image of Chiron from multiple life stages, as if the boy in the second and third images of “Blue Black Boy” had aged. “A historic achievement,” says one reviewer on the film’s poster, and historic indeed. In Moonlight, there is a past, there is a present, there is a future. Chiron is blue, too, both in the film and on the poster. Black boys look blue in the meditating Miami sunsets of Moonlight, and black men look blue among the neon street signs of the city.
Twenty-seven years separate Weems’ “Blue Black Boy” and Moonlight, yet they draw on the same color palate of heartache. “He was 32,” reflects a performer in Grace Notes, “She was 24. He was 12.” As Langston Hughes had lamented in 1926, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” “O blues!” he wrote that same year, “Sweet Blues!/Coming from a black man’s soul.” In 2003, more than seventy years after Langston Hughes wrote those lines, Mr. McCraney invoked that same spirit, writing “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the play that inspired Moonlight. Langston Hughes was twenty-five years old when he wrote his verses; Mr. McCraney was twenty-two.
As Hollywood and Yale continue to reckon with issues of diversity, Moonlight and Grace Notes insist that there is something more than the notion that marginalized stories are worth telling. These works reject the idea that there are not enough young people “in the pipeline” and instead present us with vibrant, new visions of blackness. They draw from a tradition of blues in African American art that has transferred from music and poetry to film, photography, and theater. This is the tradition that asks and answers: What happens when black lives look blue? Do they matter more?
Alex Zhang is an undergraduate in the American Studies program.
The Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration advances work related to Ethnic Studies fields; to intersectional race, gender, and sexuality research; and to Native and diasporic communities in the United States and abroad.