Story: Joshua Jenkins | Photographer: Grant Legan | Stylist: Jessie Jamz | Grooming: BLONDIE for Exclusive Artists, using Skyn Iceland
In the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight”, the heart-wrenching story of Chriron (played by Ashton Sanders) offers a one-of-a-kind glimpse into the realities and hardships faced by many young queer men of color. Speaking personally, I am the gay, bi-racial son of a single mother who fought like hell to raise her children while simultaneously battling internal, religious conflicts relating to God’s teachings and their offerings on queerness. I’m grateful to have shattered many barriers between me and my family, peers, and teachers throughout my life – but that isn’t to say I didn’t swallow a shit ton of glass along the way. For many young, queer black folks all over the world, Moonlight is the first time we've seen our stories represented on the big screen.
Throughout the years and today, queer narratives in television and film continue to perpetuate stereotypes that gay black folks exist solely as sassy sidekicks to their white counterpart (To Wong Foo, Mannequin), criminals and hustlers (Tangerine, Orange is the New Black), or won’t live past their 20’s (Set It Off). The impact of Sanders’ performance is significant, allowing us to truly digest and feel the injustices – homophobia and bullying – young queer black men face, but also the joys – love, independence, and forgiveness – without subverting them beneath white narratives. As time progresses and as Sanders’ journey from acting to modeling to beyond molds and materializes in front of fans’ eyes, it’ll be tough to forget what Chiron means to me, and to millions of others.
Sanders spent his childhood learning and acting amongst other performance artists at Amazing Grace Conservatory in South LA, which has cultivated the minds of many young black actors and actresses, including Insecure creator, co-writer, and star Issa Rae. As his passion for acting grew, he continued on to attend an arts high school in downtown LA, then later Depaul University in Chicago. During his junior year at Depaul, he left school to prepare for the role that would ultimate shape the rest of his career - Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”. Today, the jet setter shares his beauty and art with the world, recently modeling for Calvin Klein and acting in two upcoming projects alongside legends Denzel Washington and John Goodman.
For the upcoming "The Equalizer 2" (in theaters this July), Ashton takes on yet another major role, acting alongside the legendary Denzel Washington. Not too many plot details are known as of now but we do know that Washington’s character, Robert McCall, will be a father figure to Sanders’ character in the sequel. When asked about how that correlated to being on set and out of character, he tells us that same spirit was still alive. "He would always drop in his wisdom when he felt it was necessary. Denzel is a master at what he does, so working with him was both a growing and learning experience. Definitely not taken for granted."
Keeping a packed schedule, Sanders also recently wrapped two more films: one called "Captive State" (in theaters 2019). His role sees him exploring a new and exciting genre. "It will mark my first action/sci-fi thriller. The film itself is a depiction of a modern surveillance state, threats to civil liberties, and the role of resistance within an authoritarian society. It takes place nine years after extraterrestrials invade the earth, in the city of Chicago which is divided into two factions: those who have sworn allegiance with the aliens and those who have joined the rebels in their fight against the invaders. I play Gabriel, who is unknowingly drawn into the rebel’s circle."
The next film, "Native Son", will include another one of his stellar lead roles. This is possibly one of his most important roles to date. Based on the of the same night by author Richard Wright, it tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas (Ashton's character), an African American youth living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. It's a story that explores the complexities of how racist beliefs, not simply personal beliefs, but also societal-level beliefs, impact the thoughts and behavior of people.
Despite a busy and fulfilling schedule, Sanders’ recognizes the power of setting aside time, energy, and space to unwind and take a break from noise, aka “the world’s bullshit”. At the end of his day, he’s most content knowing his art made an impact and finds solace in black experiences being front-and-center. And front-and-center he is. Per his Instagram (@ashtonsanders), lounging on the beach, posing for portraits, and the oh-so-satisfying cigarette break provide sanctuary. As for what’s next for Sanders, “everything” comes to mind. And t's clear that whatever "everything" entails, it will surely be intentional and impactful, consistent qualities that ensure this trailblazer isn't going anywhere anytime soon.