“Don’t Look at Me!” Reframing the Lens of Black Queer Life and Sociality

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:50 AM
Thurgood Marshall East (Marriott Wardman Park)
Terrance Wooten, Washington University in St. Louis
LGBT social movements against state-sanctioned violence have used rhetorical refrains to mark and practice dissent, as evidenced by the proliferation of “Silence=Death;” “Gays Bash Back; “ and “Out is In.” These refrains provide a specific discourse through which critiques of violence, surveillance, and economic injustice are galvanized, connecting activists and demonstrators across geospatial and temporal landscapes. Political refrains also function as commands that often disrupt the very practices they name. In this paper, I argue that Barry Jenkins’ use of the “Don’t look at me!” refrain in Moonlight, expressed by Little/Black’s mother, Paula, functions as a performance of what Simone Browne refers to as “dark sousveillance” to name and obfuscate the racialized and gendered surveillance of black deviance throughout the film. Set in the midst of the 1980s War on Drugs, culture of poverty thesis, and a post-Moynihan Report political culture that blamed the failure of the black community on the black matriarch, Moonlight offers an alternative reading strategy that instead of re-pathologizing black queer sociality actually renders visible and mutable the controlling images used to surveil and flatten black subjectivity. Here, I am interested in how Paula’s “Don’t look at me!” attempts to render her own body out of sight in order to ask viewers to look beyond her, to shift the pathologizing lens away from her to instead think of the various systems of power operating that inform her choices and epidermalize her body as a problem. This refrain reappears with post-incarceration Black, which is significant for how we read his narrative through his mother. By engaging popular representations of the past, this paper challenges how it is we come to know black queer life, particularly in the context of the AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, and housing deprivation processes that attempted to make queer black life invisible.