First—before you read a white person’s opinion of art about and created by black people, you should listen to a black person’s thoughts. Try this interview with young artist and co-star of Moonlight Ashton Sanders, or this review from my hometown’s newspaper, or this group discussion at The Fader.
Cool? Okay. Now for my bit.
When I first read The Lord of the Rings in junior high, a strange detail stood out to me. Over and over, the word “fair” was used to describe characters when they were introduced (along with many other adjectives, of course, because you don’t write the world’s first epic fantasy trilogy by being terse). At the time, I figured it simply meant “attractive,” since all the characters thus described were princes and Elves and other heroic, eye-pleasing types.
It took an episode of Star Trek to educate me, as it so often does. In “The Naked Now,” Lieutenant Sulu, intoxicated by a virus, swashbuckles his way onto the bridge and takes Lieutenant Uhura in his arms. “I’ll save you, fair maiden!” he cries.
To which Uhura deadpans, “Sorry, neither.”
Legend has it that actress Nichelle Nichols ad-libbed that line. Because indeed, the word “fair” has become so synonymous with “beautiful,” that even the relatively progressive writers of Star Trek missed the faux pas of using it to describe a black woman. Uhura is very beautiful—but she is not “fair.”
In Best Picture winner Moonlight (excuse me while I celebrate being able to write that phrase), young Chiron’s mentor recounts being told that, “In moonlight, black boys look blue.” As a teenager, Chiron experiences a significant encounter with another black boy on the beach at night, and the phrase comes to life. It’s something that white people might not know about black skin, a bit of visual poetry that paints its human beauty with a different color than film, or indeed any of our popular culture’s imagery, usually gives us.