This is an image of a black child, around 9 years old, standing on a beach at sunrise or sunset. He has dark skin and a shaved head, and is wearing swim trunks. There are a few palm trees in the background.

Chiron, James Baldwin, and Autistic Experience

Two days after an Academy Awards where Moonlight won ‘Best Picture’, a line of over 1,000 people wrapped three city blocks awaiting to see its showing at the palatial Castro Theatre in San Francisco. As the first winner to feature a queer storyline as well as an entirely black cast, that enthusiastic turnout was understandable – especially among populations that saw themselves reflected for the first time in a Best Picture winner.

Great art, and Moonlight is certainly great art, has the ability to not only offer a cultural critique but to pull out from the viewer an intimate connection to the work presented before them. Great art can draw that connection even if the viewer’s own life and story only passively relate to the subject they are engaging with (plenty of people have seemed to passionately connect with the themes of the hit Broadway musical ‘Hamilton’ despite never having lived in 18th Century colonial America, after all).

In that context, Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro (a 2017 Academy Award nominee for ‘Best Documentary Feature’) are two films currently in theaters that the autistic community should claim as our own. What is meant by that is not that these films are made by autistic artists or feature autistic storylines. They are not and they do not. But, they are films in which we can see reflections of ourselves. They are places where we can look up to the screen and whisper to our neighbor “that’s me”.

On a generational level, Millennials do this with found cat GIFs created by people they’ve never met whose initial intent for creating those images were for purposes that these new users may never know. On a community level, repressed and newly-maturing cultures have done this for ages with a variety of forms of art. This is how much of modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) culture developed in the United States. Decades before films like Milk, Transamerica, and Moonlight told queer stories, queer people found reflections of their own stories in non-queer films like Queen Christina (1933), All About Eve (1950), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). While those stories were not meant for LGBT people or told by them, this community used those films to understand themselves and to explain their experiences to others.

As autistic community and culture develops, it is important for us to create art of our own. Yet, using existing art to better understand and explain the autistic experience is both a needed and a valid form of expression. Understanding that, both Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro inform the autistic experience. Respectively, one film serves to inform others while one film serves to inform ourselves.

When we first see Chiron, the protagonist of Moonlight, he is depicted as a child running into an abandoned building near the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami in which he lives. Once safely removed from the experiences of an external world that torments him, we see Chiron’s curiosity lead him to explore this internal world he finds. He slowly discovers the space around him as he peeks through rooms and picks up a crack pipe.

Having seen the child flee from bullies, Chiron’s soon-to-be mentor Juan (portrayed by Mahershala Ali in an Academy Award winning ‘Best Supporting Actor’ performance) enters the building to retrieve Chiron. The child does not talk, and is unsure of whom to engage and trust among those in the outside world. This sets the tone of the first of the film’s three acts (each subsequently portraying Chiron through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood).

The first act continues to follow Chiron as he struggles to understand himself, cope with his difficult home life, and navigate his inability to connect with his peers. The young version of Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is portrayed as a child more comfortable engaging a world of adults than his own childhood. Indeed, the only deep friendships we see Chiron form as a child are not with his peers but with two adults – Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). With these adults, he seems to relate more to them as peers than as surrogate parents.

While Moonlight presents Chiron’s childhood characteristics as shaped by his queerness, they are characteristics and experiences immediately recognized by most autistic people as their own. Autistic audiences will most likely see themselves in Chiron regardless of their sexual orientation or ethnicity. Chiron desires to connect with his peers, but stumbles in is inability to understand how. He is confused by the odd reactions that others have to his natural behavior. He struggles to communicate. He is reluctant to be touched. Chiron navigates the world with intense curiosity and focus. He searches others for social models of things he does not understand. He forms friendships with adults.

These experiences are enhanced by beautifully executed cinematography, which at key moments pinpoint an intense focus on a specific object or person within the frame and then swirls the surrounding screen in a manner that contrasts and distorts everything else in hyperstimulation as surrounding ‘noise’. While director Barry Jenkins has discussed this  approach as an attempt to create a dreamlike feel of the “beautiful nightmare” of growing up in his native Liberty City neighborhood, the sensory effect is closely related to how many autistic people often experience the world.

Chiron does not lose these childhood characteristics in the film’s second and third acts. Instead, Moonlight increasingly mutes them as Chiron becomes better at mirroring others around him. This mirroring presents its own conflict, and certainly autistic viewers who can pass (or have attempted to pass) as neurotypical at times can relate to this. New challenges arise as a teenage Chiron (portrayed at this point by Ashton Sanders) tries to pass as straight and as he tries to understand himself as someone whom the world says he should not be. When those pressures become too much, they lead to an outburst. We then see the world react to correct Chiron’s behavior rather than correct the negative conditions that led him to that point. This social construct is one that both autistic and black heterosexual audiences can relate to instantly even if they aren’t a teenage gay Chiron. It is a powerful moment where many different audiences can look up at the screen and whisper “that’s me”.

When we are shown the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in the film’s third act, we first see an individual who has spent his adulthood running from his identity. While Chiron has become successfully ‘functional’ in a heterosexual culture, Moonlight slowly begins to reveal the damage that has internally caused Chiron. It is damage that has been done by a society that has not accepted and allowed Chiron to be true to who he is. Chiron is lost without models that show him how to live as the person he is, or how to relate to most of the world as someone different than them. It is only when Chiron begins to find acceptance that he is given the potential to fully live life. This beginning point that Chiron finds as an adult was one that his peers were afforded automatically when they and Chiron were children.

The themes presented in this Academy Award winning ‘Best Picture’ film are intimately relatable to the autistic experience. They give autistic viewers the opportunity to sit with family and friends and point up to the screen and whisper “that’s me”. Moonlight may not be an autistic film, but Moonlight can be experienced and engaged as autistic art. For autistic viewers, this gives us a powerful vehicle to share our stories with others as we seek to help those around us better understand how we experience the world and how the world has chosen to experience us.

If Moonlight serves to inform others of our autistic experiences, then I Am Not Your Negro should serve to inform ourselves. Based on the outline and unfinished manuscript of Remember This House by American writer James Baldwin, the documentary by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck earned a 2017 Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Documentary Feature’. Baldwin himself, who died in 1987, is credited with writing the movie as all of the lines are taken from his work and correspondence as he explores his friendship with three civil rights leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.

Many reviews of the film have focused on Baldwin’s commentary on race relations in the United States and how his prescient words written decades ago are freshly applicable to today. Peck certainly drives his documentary in this direction. But, viewing the film in that frame only reveals just part of the power of Baldwin’s social commentary.

The most powerful social critique interwoven into nearly all of Baldwin’s work is the idea of self advocacy. The concept of self advocacy is one rapidly being embraced by autistic activists today: that all people should be free to speak and act for themselves. Baldwin’s writing pressed the argument that every human is fully human and that any discrimination imposed upon them is a failure of one human to see as fully human another. Baldwin saw no need to be ashamed of his blackness or of his homosexuality, nor did he see a need to have another praise him for those traits. Peck begins to reveal this in I Am Not Your Negro, but it would have been nice to see the director explore more of Baldwin’s central message.

It is a discredit to Baldwin that Peck almost-exclusively skirts the fact that Baldwin was gay.

Some of James Baldwin’s most powerful messaging on self advocacy and civil rights was treating his race and sexual orientation as ordinary and pervasive.  Everyone is human. Everyone is mundane. We are all just mundane in our own specific ways (When British journalist Mavis Nicholson described in an interview Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s 1956 novel with gay characters, as being about homosexuality, Baldwin snapped back by declaring “It’s not about homosexuality at all. It’s about what happens to you when you can’t love anybody. It doesn’t make a difference if you can’t love a woman or if you can’t love a man”).

For the autistic viewer, I Am Not Your Negro should serve as a strong reminder of the importance of self advocacy. By juxtaposing much of Baldwin’s writing (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) with visual images of both historical and modern events, the documentary clearly frames any discrimination or disability imposed upon African Americans as the false constructs that they are. But, where Peck stumbles in the making of this film is his failure to couple of the powerful message of self advocacy with its powerful celebration of the mundaneness of each human, no matter how exotic or “other” another may think that they are.

Baldwin strongly expressed this message through the arc of his writing career. He was not shy to chide King for wasting too much time over-accommodating the feelings of white people. He was equally not shy to admonish Malcolm X for over-glorifying black accomplishments through his sometimes pageant tellings of history. For Baldwin, to turn a phrase, black is beautiful regardless of what others think and regardless of whether you praise its beauty or not.

From Baldwin’s 1965 debate at Cambridge University’s Union Hall:

One of the great things that the white world does not know, but I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you were dealing with, essentially, with something exotic, bizarre, and practically, according to human laws, unknown. Alas, it is not true. We’re also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars. We are human too.

The above paragraph encapsulates so much of Baldwin’s writing, as well as a foundational concept of self advocacy. Those in the autistic self advocacy and larger disability advocacy movements most likely see a familiar frame here. No matter who we are, we are not the “other” as framed in someone else’s mind. We are the ordinary. Baldwin continuously repeated that message to his audiences. We must make sure to continuously repeat that message ourselves.

Remember This House was an unfinished and barely-begun manuscript. Perhaps the unfinished manuscripts of others are best left alone. Without the context of the mundane, I Am Not Your Negro fails to fully find Baldwin’s voice even if it credits the film’s writing to him. Still, although I Am Not Your Negro may not be a perfect form of art, it is still an important one. While it fails to robustly reflect Baldwin’s overall social critique, it still presents a powerful message of self advocacy that audiences should hear. The autistic viewer should find reminders in this film of their own full value. If such a viewer uses this documentary as an entrypoint to explore more greatly Baldwin’s writing on self advocacy, all the better.

Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro may not have been intended as autistic works of art, but they deserve a place in autistic culture. Both serve to inform our experiences and both model for a growing autistic cultural movement the inspiration that we can gather in order to tell our stories ourselves. We are beginning to see various forms of art from literature, to music, to film that tell our own stories from our perspectives. But, that doesn’t mean that we should not reach to engage the art of others and recognize our own reflections in them. Great art can pull meaning from a viewer it did not intend or know it would reach. As autistic people, if we find ourselves reflected in the works of Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro, then we should use them to inform and share our own stories as we look up to the screen and whisper to our neighbor “that’s me”.

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