What the Swimming Scene in 'Moonlight' Means to Me As a Black Girl

"Moonlight" is altogether an absolutely brilliant movie, and the recognition it got was extremely well-deserved. The fact that the Oscar went to a film that was both unapologetically black and unapologetically queer was groundbreaking and incredible. But aside from all of that, my favorite component of the film came down to a specific scene, a particular moment:

The scene had a powerful influence on a lot of people in different ways; for instance, BuzzFeed asked queer black men in particular to reflect on the ways in which the film resonated with them. 

Personally, I fell in love with the beautiful vulnerability of this scene, as well as the stunning cinematography. Director Barry Jenkins very deliberately intended the shots to be "immersive for the audience so the lens is partly in, partly out of the water," and this artistry was carried through by the work of cinematographer James Laxton and post colorist, Alex Bickel. Both the emotional and aesthetic impact were absolutely breathtaking. But one of the most significant aspects of the scene, for me, was the pure authenticity of the whole process: "Alex Hibbert the actor does not know how to swim, so you’re actually watching Mahershala Ali teach this kid how to swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as a storm is rolling in."  Experiencing this scene in the move for the first time, I had a strong suspicion that this was the case — which is a huge part of the reason that I was fighting back tears for the entire duration of this gorgeous cinematic moment.

There is a disproportionately large percentage of black children who cannot swim. I took swimming lessons as a child and grew up with a pool in my backyard, but that is often not the case. According to USA Swimming, approximately 70 percent of African-American children in this country don't know how to swim, with black kids drowning at almost three times the rate of their white counterparts. The vast majority of us never become confident swimmers, and the issue is perpetuated from one generation to the next; parents who can't swim have around a 13 percent chance of one of their children knowing how.

Historically, this is a problem that has arisen largely as a result of racial divisions in this country. Owing to slavery and segregation, African-Americans have had a long history of being denied access to swimming pools. Even after the race riots in the 1960s, the pools that were built in predominantly black areas were small and shallow. As such, teaching these children to swim hadn't become a priority. Furthermore, the socioeconomic implications of the activity lent themselves to an image of swimming as an elitist status symbol. Owning a pool in the backyard, for instance, is perceived as a privilege reserved almost exclusively for families that are rich and/or white.

So watching this scene...

...and understanding the complexity of the history that has led up to this moment...

...spoke to me deeply as a young black woman. I understand that my experience has not been that of the majority of black children. I also understand that this is a serious threat to black children's lives. Kids are going to be around water, one way or another. The fact that they aren't strong swimmers doesn't mean that at some point they won't end up near a pool or a lake or an ocean. It happens. And that's statistically much more of a danger for children who look like me. While I absolutely would have adored this scene regardless, as countless people do, it resonated particularly deeply with me because of that understanding. Which makes me love this film even more.

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