See Moonlight

The film Moonlight is one of the best films I’ve seen about a young man coming of age, the roots of youth violence, and what’s behind the hard mask of so many minority youth, including those who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. A hunger for human connection, compassion, and empathy often hides behind the hardness these young men project, underneath the Raiders’ jacket, the forbidding tattoos and intimidating muscles.

One incident in Moonlight was eerily reminiscent of an episode I witnessed at age 15 as a Boy Scout. There was more than a little bullying in Boy Scouts. That was often directed at vulnerable or perceived-to-be soft or effeminate boys. For reasons that were never clear to me, I was not victimized, even though I was a tiny kid and the troop’s only Jew.

The lead bully, whom I will call Steve, regularly tormented another boy, whom I will call Tim. Steve was older and larger. There realistically wasn’t much Tim could do. The adults never did much to help, either. I suspect they expected Tim to stick up for himself.

One day he did. On one cold camp-out, deep in woods, Steve made some cutting comment in Tim’s direction. Tim suddenly grabbed a small sled and smashing it over Steve’s head. Steve’s blood poured from a gaping head wound onto the snow, as adults ran from all directions to staunch the bleeding.

This being late-1970s white suburbia, no one was arrested or locked up. That’s probably for the best. I don’t know what happened to either boy in later years. Throw an off-the-shelf handgun into the mix, and this would resemble any number of Chicago homicides. It might even be labelled gang-related.

That was my first brush with potentially lethal violence perpetrated by a cornered young man defending his honor and masculinity. Every day, in my morning newspaper, I see more.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

8 thoughts on “See Moonlight”

  1. At my first year at prep school, a little annoying freshman or sophomore boy was given a wedgie by some big jocks, then paraded down the hallway dangling by his torn briefs, then hung on a shower hook and the cold water turned on, then one imaginative bully shoved a tube of Crest up his ass and squeezed all the toothpaste out, to the boy's screams. I was not a witness to it, and hope I might have had the courage to plead with the upperclassmen to stop, but the incident was rather renowned that year, for once the little regularly picked-on boy freed himself, amid all the gales of laughter, he went to his room, grabbed a baseball bat, and went after the upperclassmen, injuring a few, and then smashing all of their fancy stereos to smithereens (he was also a scholarship boy, with a transistor radio, while his tormentors were all leafy lane WASPSD from fashionable suburbs and country day schools). The school expelled the little boy. Every decent boy I knew felt that they kicked out the wrong one. But you know, among the boys with ruined stereos or bruised thighs were the son of a famous author, the son of a fourth generation legacy, the son of a big donor, the grandson of a governor…..but I can see myself striding down that hallway with that baseball bat, looking for blood, and if some cadre of persecuted boys gave me some sort of symbolic support and some sort of emotional anchor, I'd have joined their gang.

  2. > defending his honor and masculinity.

    Having been in "Tim's" position myself, probably around the same time, I don't see it that way at all. "Tim" probably thought, if his experience was anything at all like mine, that he'd had enough of being picked on, was sick and fucking tired of watching grownups being spectators for bullying by thugs, and that he was going to put a stop to the shit he was getting from this particular asshole.

    "Honor" and "masculinity" have nothing to do with it. It's just self-defense.

    [EDIT] I concur that the title movie is great.

    1. Maybe it's still "defending his honor and masculinity" even if those aren't the words he'd use himself.

      1. In that case, how are these words different from the barking of a dog, as far as conveying meaning?

        In my own case, it would never have occurred to me in a million years to have described my behavior as defense of my "honor and masculinity," and in fact I would strenuously deny that "honor and masculinity" had the first thing to do with my actions.

  3. Another Chicagoan here. The bloodshed going on in the South and West sides of Chicago reminds me of the Hatfield-McCoy feud of the last half of the 19th Century, only with more killings because it's not just two groups fighting each other, but dozens; and because the combatants live in the same communities whereas the Hatfield and McCoy families lived in different states (West Virginia and Kentucky). In both cases, the cycle of retaliation goes on forever, and the issue at hand is the need to not appear weak.

  4. Probably the closest I'll ever come to killing a man was back in '78, when I was working on a pipeline for Conoco. There was a welder who particularly loved to give me trouble, which I mostly let roll off my back, but there are certain things you can't forgive when you are working out in the field those long, overtime-rich days, and one of them is putting a nice fresh cow patty into a man's lunch sandwich. I happened to be standing near him when I bit into it and barely avoided the green runny part, with a machete in my other hand, which I just barely avoided hitting him with.

    I'm pretty sure if I'd bit into the cow crap and then nailed him with that machete, there wasn't a jury in Oklahoma that would've convicted me. I'm still glad I didn't, but the thought that I'd've probably lived to tell the tale is comforting sometimes.

  5. No. What you read about in your morning paper is multiple Steves trying to kill each other, and often missing and hitting babies down the block because gangbangers can't shoot to save their lives, just as they cannot speak, read, think, etc. Gangbangers are human filth, no matter their skin color, no matter their particular sad story. They are coyotes without grace or nobility.

    Don't give what is happening in Chicago the dignity of recasting it as the sum total of many Tim and Steve stories. It isn't. It is appropriate to ruminate on the circumstances that would cause so many Steves to come into being in one neighborhood (presumably they were born in Tim mode, tis very sad)… but don't ever try to force yourself to see a Steve as a Tim. Steves have to be dealt with once they become Steves, and if you run around trying to project Timness onto them you are going to end up giving us stupid and impractical advice.

    Written by a Tim who never snapped, but who has had to deal with many a Steve, including gangbangers.

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