A Moment for Moonlight
Films like “Moonlight” celebrate what it means to live.
Warning: This story contains spoilers for various shows and films.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you probably heard about the Oscars fiasco that happened during this year’s ceremony. Conspiracy theories aside, in a nutshell what happened was that the producers of “La La Land” were called up on stage, gave all their speeches, only for “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz to call the “Moonlight” cast and crew to the stage, revealing there was a mistake and that they had won.
The thing is, “Moonlight” is always going to be attached to what happened at the Oscars. It’s not going to be the movie that took a heartbreaking and real story, that is usually overlooked, and told it in the most beautiful way. It’s not going to be the movie that became the first Best Picture film to have LGBT themes and feature an all black cast. It’s going to be the movie that won even after that weird Oscars finale. It’s always going to be a shared glory with “La La Land,” but it won’t get the single glory “Moonlight” deserves because of its own merit.
“Moonlight’s” win is an achievement. It’s the first black film to win “Best Picture,” where no slaves or maids were included in the plot of the film, and it’s a gay film without a body count at the end. It’s a coming of age story for a black, gay man named Chiron. It chronicles his life, and follows him through three different parts of his life to the point the audience gets to live through the emotional trauma with him. It’s incredible and didn’t nearly get enough recognition as it should have.
Christian Gella, 22, aspiring screenwriter and UCLA candidate for a master in the arts degree in Asian-American studies said, “In some ways, audiences and public discourse have internalized this need to detract from black success — how coincidental is it that, for the first time in its history, the Oscars have interrupted their otherwise normal continuity to detract from blackness as it intersects with other nodalities? “Moonlight” signifies a breakthrough in both black and queer intersections, yet this disruption of continuity speaks metaphysical volume about our own societal reactions to queer, black success.”
And that’s not right. “Moonlight” deserves it’s moment to shine, it deserves recognition. “Moonlight,” in a filmmakers point of view, is beautiful. It takes a concept that is universal to everyone — your identity — and tells it in the eyes of a person whose story is rarely told.
When it comes to black men, the media’s portrayal of them is very niche. Dr. Darron T. Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Memphis, said, “The typical roles are all too often the black sidekick of a white protagonist, for example, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the over-sexed ladies’ man, the absentee father or, most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug.” In “Moonlight,” there are scenes regarding drugs, which is fitting since the film deals with Chiron’s mother’s addiction and his life as a drug dealer after prison, however it shows black men as caring, nurturing and healing.
In numerous interviews, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play the film was adapted by, have both said the film is semi-autobiographical. In an interview with CBS News, McCraney pinpoints a moment when he was seven and his mother told him the father figure in his life, a drug dealer like Mahershala Ali’s character Juan in the film, would not be returning home. Living three blocks away from the projects where he lived, Barry Jenkins mother was dealing with a drug addiction, something both McCraney and him had in common.
In the same interview McCraney said, “Both of our mothers suffered from the ravages of addiction, and so we watched that as children, unable to do anything about it, unable to really have any say in that process and… felt like we needed to tell that story.” He continued to say, “Someone once said, ‘You all humanize these characters,’ and I don’t know if we actually did humanize them; it’s just that we never forgot that they were human.”
Cassie Rubio, a comparative literature graduate from UC Santa Barbara, said, “It’s a quiet movie and I think that the silence that exists between characters, in the protagonist’s mind, and in the general landscape is intentional. It’s in those small windows the audience is shown humanity at its finest: complicated, multidimensional characters. doing their best to reconcile who they are with the world they live in. I think there’s something so universal and authentic about that idea.”
“Moonlight,” in a way, also takes from many other famous films by directors of color. The influence of Wong Kar-Wai is obvious in the set up certain scenes, and Jenkins has openly acknowledged the influence of the Hong Kong New Wave, hoping to be something different in the wave of “Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson knock-offs” that filled his film school. Jenkins adapts things he’s seen in films, makes them his own, and uses them to tell his own story.
But to me personally, as a nineteen year old queer person, “Moonlight” is one of the most important pieces of queer cinema out there.
I’ve grown up in a world where the trope “burying your gays,” “hide your lesbians,” and “gayngst” have their own webpages. In 2015, the resurgence of the bury your gay trope caused backlash between fans of television shows, particularly “The 100," after they killed off a gay female character shortly after she got in a relationship with another female character. Growing up, it’s taken a long time for me to believe my sexuality will not have my life ending in tragedy, but the world has never stopped trying to tell me it will, and that even in my safe places, I am left without hope.
It’s not just me who feels this, and it’s why exceptions to these standards are so important. It’s why movies like “Moonlight” are so fucking important.
In queer cinema and television, there’s a trend in them ending in tragedy, especially if it’s a drama. Other than that one Kevin Kline comedy movie, “Beginners”(which ends in a death, albeit a pretty optimistic one), and a handful of other films — I’ve seen one too many shows or movies where death or lost love is the ending. “Brokeback Mountain” had Ennis del Mar dancing with a bloodied jacket of his ex-lover after imagining how he died. “My Own Private Idaho” ends with Mike heartbroken. Amy and Karma were never really an option in “Faking It’s” three seasons, and yet you couldn’t help but just hope this would be an exception.
In a poem by a now deactivated Tumblr account, the writer captures the feeling for queer people and the lack of positive media for the LGBT community, particularly for herself, as someone who is attracted to other girls.
“But if you should fall in love with a girl — and loving and falling in love are two very distinct things — the first kiss is the end. You’ve all seen the movie. Or the television show. Or the after-school special, or you’ve read the book that was banned from your school’s library for containing Sexual Content. The point of your story is not to fall in love.”
But it’s hard not to want to be hopeful. Everyone wants to be. And myself and many others find ourselves wanting to invest in queer characters and hope they will be safe, only for our trust to broken until we learned to stop trusting at all.
And that’s what happened watching “Moonlight.” After years of reinforcement of not being able to trust directors with gay characters, “Moonlight” delivered something different. Chiron and Kevin don’t break up in the end. Neither one of them die. Instead, they hold each other, Kevin stroking Chiron’s head. Two lost souls get separated and find their way back to each other.
In a BuzzFeed LGBT video entitled, “Queer Black Men Talk About “Moonlight,”’ one of the men in the video said, “How many ways in which I have not allowed myself to live like this or been able to even envision myself living like this because of not having seen it?”
After him, another man added, “We need examples, that’s how we live, that’s how we grow.”
Now it’s ambiguous whether or not they get back together, but it doesn’t matter. “Moonlight” is a film that takes every goddamn expectation and crushes it completely, and that on its own is like breathing in a breath of fresh air when you’ve been drowning all your life.
So this is to you, “Moonlight.” To Barry Jenkins, to Tarell Alvin McCraney, to the cast and crew, to the producers — thank you for this film. Thank you for everything.
“Moonlight” is currently out on DVD and is showing in select theaters across the country. If you haven’t seen it well, what are you waiting for?