Child Watch® Column:
Confronting Oscar-Nominated Moonlight’s Moving and Powerful Truths

Release Date: February 16, 2017

Marian Wright Edelman

Everyone should watch the film Moonlight nominated for eight Academy Awards. Why? Because it’s a very powerful story of a poor Black boy’s struggles to reach adulthood with countless odds stacked against him. Because it’s a relatable story for children and youths struggling to make it to adulthood without being derailed by homophobia, violence and drugs. Because it’s my or your story if we faced perilous hurdles to survive, learn in school and have a safe place to sleep at night. Because it’s a too common American story — one not everyone wants to tell and too few want or are ready to hear and do anything about.

Moonlight is not only a moving coming of age story but much more. It’s a window into the terrors bred by pervasive structural poverty and racism in our boastfully rich and still unequal nation. It is also a story about homophobia and the struggle of gay children to grow up in the midst of that fear. It is the story of strength despite daily threats petrifying a skinny, dreamy, scruffy-looking eight-year old who can hardly understand all the harsh realities he faces and how he will overcome them alone. It’s a painful story marked by parental neglect, abuse, fear, and despair. Yet Moonlight is not a sad story but one of hope, of resilience, love, redemption, and second chances. It’s a story that frees all Americans to lift our veils of convenient ignorance and scorn for gay Black boys and children, youths and adults who face terrible choices struggling to survive and grow up all across America. That so many do with their bodies and humanity not in complete tatters is an example of fierce will and human resilience.

When my husband and I saw and discussed this brutally honest portrayal of a young, poor, gay Black boy struggling to grow up in Miami’s Liberty City, we decided to go back to see and experience it again. For me it brought back a flood of memories growing up as a Black girl in a small South Carolina town and time when Jim Crow and homophobia reigned but before drugs saturated and poisoned our nation. Most Black children back then were surrounded by caring Black adults in our close-knit community and faith congregations who buffered us against the segregated and hostile outside world that told us we weren’t worth much or were different or inferior because of our skin color. But there were a small group of Black children and adults who were pariahs and shunned by many in the Black community — labeled “sissies” or “faggots” or bad people. Some gossiped about and excluded them as abnormal because they were gay and treated them as “others” which too many still do in our nation. Although we have seen a sea change in protections for the LGBTQ community we must finish the struggle, and accept and respect and protect all children regardless of their race, sex, disability or sexual orientation. Like Moonlight’s Chiron, countless children still are being “othered” by too many leaders, schools, faith congregations, communities and politicians who refuse to accept, often bully, ostracize or discriminate against them. Moonlight captures the impact of the soul-scarring experience of being bullied and the hidden layers of pain a child born poor and Black and gay often endures. I hope Moonlight makes all of us see ourselves and our children in Chiron and so many like him.  

The film captures the despair of our vulnerable child pariahs grappling not only with their sexual preferences on top of their compounded daily burdens of racism, poverty, parental drug addiction, and violence. Moonlight does not sensationalize Chiron’s life, play with audience emotions, or make a political statement. Instead it allows his story to unfold from boyhood to manhood with a powerful simplicity in many scenes requiring no dialogue. How wonderful to see Chiron finding moments of revelation and joy amidst neglect, abuse and torment at home and school. How sad that he became a drug dealer as an adult after seeing drugs ravish his own mother and that his mother’s drug dealer and girlfriend were his lifelines of survival. Chiron grows up to sell drugs too because it is one of the only pathways he sees as available to him — a tragic story that plays out daily for so many poor Black boys who end up in prison or dead because equal education and jobs don’t exist and all the odds are stacked against them in our economically rich but spiritually anemic nation. 

Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell McCraney grew up in the same Liberty City neighborhood in Miami as the boy in the film. They were able to capture and share this extraordinary story of struggle towards manhood for the many fragile and invisible children like Chiron still there struggling daily to survive and reach adulthood in our too heedless nation. Moonlight opens our eyes and hearts. I hope more serious moving films will continue to open our eyes and hearts to our country’s past and present child abuse and neglect and move us to affirm the humanity of all our children and their right to a fair chance to grow up safely and hopeful.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by justparis at: July 19, 2017
great piece...I want to help children in Louisville, KY and surrounding areas, what must I do?

Submitted by Maria B at: July 10, 2017
I thought this column was very informative , I learned a lot just by reading this .

Submitted by Betty at: June 10, 2017
As a retired teacher who spent her last year's working with literacy in a Title 1 school of pre-k - 3rd grade, with a ratio of black to white, 98-2 %,, I can itentify with all that Dr. Edelman talked about. My last 8 years of teaching were 1990- 1998. I was teaching in Warner Robins, GA which is. A military town of about 100,000 population. I am now retired and live in. Senior Living Community. In Macon, GA. MMy Episcopal Church and 2 other churches are participating in a Freedom School that started last week at St.Paul's Church in downtown Macon. It certainly looks like a winger, very worthwhile program. I plan to participate as a volunteer. Thank Dr. Edelman for all the great work you have accomplished.

Submitted by Obelle at: May 10, 2017
I love this column. Mrs. Edelman's pure Soul and pluperfect diction, backed by a lifetime of seeing the truth in every town she ever walked through, makes her a Seer above seers, not one facet of the picture unseen by her Eye. Would that She were the Preident of the United States.

Submitted by Katherine at: April 10, 2017
Thank you

Submitted by Barbara at: April 7, 2017
The column, the movie, and public service is important, because it allows us to open up to the taboo related to many unspeakable acts that are inflicted on our children and society. Children need to feel protected and happy to be created in the image of God. God loves us and did not create blacks, white, gays, lesbians. God created humans to share love with each-other.

Submitted by Save at: April 1, 2017
This story needed to be told especially from that setting. Being a transplant from the Northeast about 20 years ago, as an educator, I have witnessed the obvious differences in acceptance and expectations of children of color in South Florida as oppose to , NY, NJ, and PA. There are many "Liberty Cities" in this area. We would welcome and support an active role of the CDF in our state for the sake of our deserving children.

Submitted by DAN at: February 26, 2017
bEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN. i'M ENJOYING your writing. I will see this movie and read more of your work. Thanks

Submitted by Ness at: February 21, 2017
Great column. I have not seen this movie, but have witnessed many of my people that struggle with their identity, those that do not know whether they are coming or going. Those that believe they must assimilate to "fit on". Thankfully movies are being made to address the issues that the youth are facing today. Now the task is making sure they see them, and are able to have thoughtful discussion afterwards.

Submitted by Bon at: February 19, 2017
Mahershala Ali's poignant portrayal of the drug dealer Juan's love and compassion for a troubled young boy, as well as for others in his struggling Black community, made me think hard about ways i sometimes judge people as good or bad without knowing anything about the complexity of their lives. I'm going to work on changing that.

Submitted by Yogesh Sharma at: February 18, 2017
save child rights

Submitted by Sno at: February 16, 2017
It was a challenge to watch. My heart was heavy. I wondered what percentage of pit children are experiencing this additional baggage of Blackmesd?

Submitted by Harry at: February 16, 2017
So inspiring to see such a positive, encouraging commentary coming from a legendary trailblazer; one well regarded and rooted in her own space and identity yet consistently open to listen, hear and respond to the plight/issues and concerns of the "others" in our midst. Well done indeed. You ROCK Mrs. Edelman!!!

Submitted by revdaveb at: February 16, 2017
So very powerful and moving. Thank you.

Submitted by Pres at: February 16, 2017
I, too, saw this movie just before the holidays. It was a very powerful and moving film. As a person who has work in and around the juvenile justice, education, and child welfare areas for close to 40 years, I have witnessed the challenges faced by children in those systems. Children who not only struggled with the myriad issues related to their development by issues related to their race, class, gender, or gender orientation. Unfortunately, in too many instances, the systems ostensibly designed to help these children, and too many of the people in those systems and their families did just the opposite. Children in this country, with its wealth, should not have to face the realities depicted in Moonlight. There is a political that both creates this problem and serves as an central obstacle in efforts to change it. Isn't it time that we start standing up for children? I believe the time is now!