Highsnobiety’s Honors Week is a celebration of the women — particularly the trans and BIPOC women — who have pushed our culture forward. This Women’s History Month, we’ve tapped six guest curators to go deep on the issues they care about and to spotlight their favorite women and nonbinary creators. Today, artist, writer, and actor Eva Reign interviews Nyala Moon.
Nyala Moon is a woman on a mission. Born and raised in Harlem, she’s a multi-hyphenate director, actress, and writer. While many popular films throughout history sensationalize trans lives, Moon offers stories that go against the grain. Her latest film, One Last Deal, was forged from her personal experiences as a Black trans woman. Delving into the world of a woman recovering from gender confirmation surgery, One Last Deal also illustrates a powerful tale of love and acceptance.
Despite the commitment she has to elevating her community through art, she does not define herself as an activist. “It's very laborious to continue to have to educate people on transness,” says Moon. “I would love to create films people can reference back on, to have some kind of foundation for transness that isn’t an automatic trans-101 video.”
Coming from a conservative household, Moon spent the later years of her adolescence in homeless shelters like Ali Forney Center, Sylvia’s Place, and Covenant House. After spending time away in Virginia with her grandparents, she came back to New York, living proudly in her truth. “I was really afraid of my mother’s family accepting me. I didn't have any help from any of my family, and I lived in the shelter system for probably two or three years. It felt like forever.”
Not long after getting back on her feet, she honed in on her artistry and attended City College of New York to pursue her MFA in Film. “I really love showing trans people doing everyday things that don't necessarily hinge on their transness. I think about myself as a teenager, wondering, ‘Where would I have been if I saw trans people just existing on screen?’”
I spoke to Moon about the real-life inspiration behind her new film, One Last Deal, as well as the importance of seeing trans love stories on screen, and the films that made her.
How does being a New York native impact your art?
Because I spent some time in West Virginia with my grandparents, it made me love the city even more. It made me want to tell New York stories, because New York is where my life is. It's where I have so many fond memories of growing up — my mom, transitioning, and meeting my tribe of trans women. I love telling New York stories because it feels like home.
What would you say makes a New York story a strong story?
New York is such a vibrant place, and at the same time, it's such a diverse place. A lot of trans women come to New York — probably the hardest city in the world to live in — and they find the most acceptance here even though it's still a jungle. The way a lot of trans women have flourished in this city couldn't have happened in other places. It holds a special place in my heart because it's an incubator for trans women. Especially for our generation; there were not any trans women in the past doing what we're doing now, what our generation is accomplishing. That could have only happened in New York City.
Your most recent film, One Last Deal, is about a Black trans woman who is going through her last stage of recovery from gender confirmation surgery. What was the inspiration behind the telling of this work?
One Last Deal is a slightly semi-autobiographical experience. What made me want to write it is I really wanted to tell a trans love story in the most simplistic, mundane way. I was really inspired by a relationship that I was in when I had just gotten done with my bottom surgery. I remember thinking about it and seeing no positive media representations of trans women and their partners being in love.
It's always a sensationalized love where the stakes are high. For instance, in Dog Day Afternoon, he's robbing a bank for his girlfriend, which is exciting. Or even the Forest Whitaker movie with Jaye Davidson [The Crying Game], even though Jaye Davidson's not a trans woman. It's just like, will you accept me even though I am a trans person? I wanted to push past all of that, and I wanted to show two people in love where one of them happens to be a trans woman. I didn't want to add all the sensationalized complexities you see in a lot of media when trans people are in love.
I remember in my class when I was reading the One Last Deal script, a lot of the notes that I got from my faculty were like: Why isn't she struggling with her transition? or Why isn't he struggling with it? or Why is he with her? It was offensive, but then I thought it was very interesting, because people don't really get it. We get it, because of course, we're trans people. But the outside, they don't get that. Even though it's a cliché moniker now, “love is love,” and it's very similar to probably what cis-het people have experienced.
What are your top five films?
Okay, that's a hard question. In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai, love that film to death. Suzhou River by Lou Ye. And then Crooklyn, probably one of my all-time favorite Spike Lee movies. It's such a deep cut, and I don't really think people give Crooklyn the love it deserves. I really relate to that film too, because my mom died when I was the little girl's age in the film.
Having brothers and being a little kid in Harlem trying to figure out what's going on with my family, Crooklyn holds a special place in my heart. Also A Little Princess by Alfonso Cuarón. If I'm going to have to say another one, then I would say Eve's Bayou. And again, I really related to Eve, the little girl in it. When I would live with my grandparents down south, everything was really slow, unlike the city. Watching that movie gave me a real connection to the south in a way that I didn't have living in New York City. When I went down south, I was scared of butterflies, because you don't really see butterflies here.
Wait, you were scared of butterflies?
I was scared of butterflies. So to punish me, my grandparents would set me on the porch because they knew that I'd be like, "Let me in, I will do whatever you want me to do!" I just was not used to them. The only bugs you see in New York City are cockroaches and ants. You don't really see butterflies flying around.
What women, both throughout history and in the present, inspire you and give you hope?
I'll give you a modern-day one. I really love Viola Davis. I played her Golden Globe speech so many times to myself to get me through grad school. I had to fight against micro-aggressions from being Black, being trans, and being a woman. I used to play Viola Davis' speech to myself all the time to amp me up and get me through the day. What’s really interesting about it is when she says the thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity, she was actually quoting Harriet Tubman. You can throw Harriet Tubman on the list, too. Both of those women are groundbreaking women. Their hard work inspired me to keep going forward despite not getting any opportunities, not getting any support, and always having to fight for my vision.
What are your goals in life?
I hope I make it into the industry and I'm able to tell more stories. I would love to make more movies about trans people that center on trans people, and I really want to be even more carefree than I am now. Because I feel like a lot of times I have to remind myself; I have to be like, "Okay Nyala, this is not important. No one's burning down in a house so you can be carefree."
What are your hopes for Black trans women?
I hope Black trans women have the opportunity to be completely carefree in a way that we aren't now. I really want Black trans women to stop being killed by their partners. That needs to stop. And I really wish Black trans women could be carefree in a way that doesn't have to be about activism. I love activism. I think it's needed, and I praise people who are out there fighting. But it also saddens me in a lot of ways; every Black trans woman has to become an activist. When are we going to have to stop wearing the capes? When are we just going to be able to exist and just be? That's probably what influences a lot of my films. I just want to show trans people existing in life and going with the motions.