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Shadow and Myth: On Stranger Inside and Moonlight

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Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing


This chapter addresses Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside (2001), a made-for-television film about a young black lesbian prisoner seeking her own incarcerated mother by transferring to a higher security facility. It explores Stranger within the context of Dunye’s meditation on the psycho-politics of black kinship as a matrix of disinheritance. Black female masculinity here questions the relation between a state-sanctioned interdiction of black kinship and the willingness to suffer or inflict violence to undo its effects. The racialized dislocation of embodiment, gender expression, and sexual practice serves also to upset any normative striving for coherent social identity, a point explored further in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016). The book closes with a critical reading of this Oscar-winning film that draws out its philosophical, even mythical qualities.

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  1. 1.

    The fuller passage reads: “[The] restitution of the subject’s wholeness appears in the guise of a restoration of the past. But the stress is always placed more on the side of reconstruction than on that of reliving, in the sense we have grown used to calling affective. The precise reliving—that the subject remembers something as truly belonging to him, as having truly been lived through, with which he communicates and which he adopts—we have the most explicit indication in Freud’s writings that that is not what is essential. What is essential is reconstruction” (Lacan 1991, 56).

  2. 2.

    Hartman writes further: “Love encourages forgetting, which is intended to wash away the slave’s past. Love makes a place for the stranger; it domesticates persons from ‘outside of the house’ and not ‘of the blood’; it assuages the slave’s loss of family; it remakes slaveholders as mothers and fathers. Owning persons and claiming kin are one and the same; so love cannot be separated from dispossession or property in persons. Affection perhaps softens the sting of dishonor but does not erase it… Love extends the cover of belonging and shrouds the slave’s origins, which lie in acts of violence and exchange, but it doesn’t remedy the isolation of being severed from your kin and denied ancestors” (Hartman 2007, 87).

  3. 3.

    One of the most powerful articulations of this ethics, against the morality of good and evil, is found in Bataille (1991). He writes: “We cannot be human until we have perceived in ourselves the possibility for abjection in addition to the possibility for suffering. We are not only possible victims of the executioners, the executioners are our fellow creatures. We must ask ourselves: is there anything in our nature that renders such horror impossible? And we would be correct in answering: no, nothing. A thousand obstacles in us rise against it… Yet it is not impossible. Our possibility is thus not simply pain, it extends to the rage of the torturer” (Bataille 1991, 18).

  4. 4.

    Nico Lang (2017) reminds us that Moonlight is also the first LGBTQ film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, citing the persistent homophobia of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), which most critics thought a shoe-in for the barrier-breaking award, was snubbed in favor of Paul Haggis’s trite social message film, Crash (2004).

  5. 5.

    For a discussion of the composition process behind the original score, see Shapiro (2017). Nicholas Britell’s work was also nominated for an Academy Award.

  6. 6.

    Wayfinding is a term of art in the fields of architecture, design, geography, and psychology, comprising four basic elements: orientation, route decision, route monitoring, and destination recognition. Planners take such elements into account when imagining how best to analyze, facilitate and prevent the movement, gathering, distribution and dispersal of populations across public and private spaces of the natural and built environment (Gibson 2009; Kitchin and Freundschuh 2000).

  7. 7.

    This distinction corresponds to the three expressions of prayer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: longing would be the hallmark of vocal prayer (in which one ritualistically embodies one’s faith through recitation), reflection the hallmark of meditation (in which one evaluates the alignment between one’s principles and practices), and mystery the hallmark of contemplation (in which one directly shares in an experience of God’s ineffability).

  8. 8.

    On the complex relations between phylogeny, ontogeny, and sociogeny and the concept of poiesis in the thought of Sigmund Freud, Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, see Marriott (2011).

  9. 9.

    Much has been made of the symbolism of water in the film, from the ocean to the bath. See, for instance, Gilber (2016).

  10. 10.

    This account of Chiron et al. is drawn largely from Lamberton (1988). Accounts vary significantly across the vast literature, of course, but this narration should suffice for present purposes.


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Correspondence to Jared Sexton .

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Sexton, J. (2017). Shadow and Myth: On Stranger Inside and Moonlight . In: Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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