Moonlight, Discomfort, and Storytelling in a Best Picture

(bbc.com)

Moonlight made me uncomfortable. I saw Barry Jenkins’s small-budget Best Picture Winner in the fall and I left with a feeling that I had seen a well-acted, interesting movie that just didn’t work for me.[1] It wasn’t because of the gay part. Or the black part. Or, it was, but not in an outwardly negative response. At least that’s not really what it felt like then. Instead, the discomfort seemed to come from some aspect of the artistry of the film. There are a variety of words that approximate the sort of feeling I got; I figured it was too art-y, too slowly paced, and most of all just lacking in actual plot.

But Moonlight was also a film that grew on me. It sat there, in the back of my mind, and just sort of steeped for days and days. And as it steeped I began to think more and more about why I needed it to have a plot so badly. Weirder still, a year previously I had written an entire undergraduate thesis about the ways that the need for a linear and clear narrative arc can directly harm the chances of telling any stories that do not fit into the dominant culture’s preconceived notions of how time progresses. A story about a sick person has to show them either get sicker and eventually die, or they must get better and eventually be totally healed; no one is allowed to be sick and stay sick, even though that happens to people all of the time. That non-binary example is the one that I mostly used in my undergraduate thesis, but this societal need for a beginning, middle, and end is just as, if not even more, powerfully felt when it comes to stories like Moonlight that examine queer sexuality and/or blackness.

So, I knew this,[2] and I still felt so uncomfortable with the way that Moonlight progressed. Something within me has been so conditioned to react with a combination of fear/disgust/ambivalence to stories that unfold this way. I guess I should say, in case any of y’all haven’t seen the film, that Moonlight focuses on three periods in the life of Chiron, a guy who is black, and gay, and comes of age in Liberty City, Miami. Anyway, as they unfold, you only get brief vignettes of his life, and then just as you begin to recognize the trajectory of the story, it jumps away to a later time of his life. These leaps and story blips eventually coalesce into a broad picture of who Chiron grows up to be, and there are callbacks and themes and symbols that are all mixed into the story. In fact, it’s hard now, after I’ve thought about this movie so much, to re-describe the trepidations I had about the film. But they’re important. I was not comfortable understanding the “story” that Moonlight had to tell. And I felt that way partly because I am an outsider to its story. Moonlight wanted to create this flowing, lyrical, poignant, harsh, scary, violent narrative which would not follow the plodding path of A->B->C upon which the dominant culture relies. We need a black story to be told a certain way for us to “get” it, or we need a queer coming out narrative to be familiar and fully explained for it to make “sense.”

But even though those types of stories can be true ones, they are also so fucking limited. They erase the truth of those stories that just don’t fit into our worldview. So why should a story that is so radically different from what even the most progressive narratives that Hollywood tells ever conform to the notions of plot to which we are so used. You know how every episode of the TV show House had the same rhythm (and also almost every hour long TV show ever)? When you watched them on TV you could tell whether a diagnosis was correct based on what time/which commercial break you were on. And there is something comforting about that rhythm; I have watched every episode of House at least twice, and loved them all. But remember the episodes that broke that rhythm? The ones you remember are the ones that deviate from the cliché. To me, that is what Moonlight is, a vibrant and beautiful shake up of not only the typical Hollywood subject matter, but also the tried and true blockbuster style of movie-making that keeps us locked in a capitalistic, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered and straight oppressive world.

[1] I still thought it was a beautiful, excellent, and important movie, but if you had told me as I walked out of the theater that it would win Best Picture, I probably would have handed the little card to Faye Dunaway and confused the shit out of everyone.

[2] I say “knew” and it sounds as if I think it is in any way possible to actually understand the ways that society shapes these stories, but I really mean “knew” with little quotation marks, as in I worked just hard enough on my thesis that I am now very interested in this idea, and was definitely aware that it exists.

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