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This post contains spoilers for Moonlight.
Independent film Moonlight, a breaker of gay and racial stereotypes, takes home the Oscar for best picture
Moonlight’s Oscar win is especially groundbreaking in Trump’s America
These should have been the headlines we read this morning, not the ridiculous flub of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announcing La La Land as the best picture winner before the Academy fixed the mistake and gave Moonlight the top honor.
It seems that even in a year that’s less #OscarsSoWhite—with Viola Davis (Fences) and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) receiving awards for best supporting actress and best supporting actor, respectively—the winning picture of 2017, with its mostly black cast, has had to take a backseat to the drama of a PricewaterhouseCooper screwup. To make up for the absence of headlines and think pieces this morning about why Moonlight is so important, let me fill you in.
First off, Moonlight is a story of a poor black gay boy, a character rarely seen in cinema. The movie is broken up into the three stages, or identities, which are more thrust upon our main character rather than chosen by him: Little (as a child), Chiron (as a teenager), and Black (as an adult). All three versions of the same man struggle to find a place in a world where the paths of black, gay, and poor don’t intersect.
While the film goes on to fight stereotypes of what it means to be black, gay, and poor, it also works with the hard truths of those stereotypes: Little/Chiron/Black is a black boy who lives in the projects and has much stacked against him; he has a drug-addicted single black mother who can barely keep it together; he looks up to a black drug-selling kingpin. There are indeed single mothers forced into poverty and drug abuse by circumstances that need no further explanation than the socioeconomic barriers that one-parent households in poor neighborhoods face. Just like there are little black boys across the country who find themselves stuck within the constraints of heteronormative performances of gender and sexuality—especially in an America that is not necessarily inviting of white queerness, but certainly more accepting than black queerness. It is also no secret that young men who grow up in poverty sometimes face such little opportunities with limited resources, that selling drugs is how they must take care of themselves and their families.
What Moonlight does masterfully, though, is shatter the coldness, the absoluteness of these stereotypes to illuminate the human necessity of intimacy and vulnerability.
This is most striking in Little’s relationship with Juan, his drug-dealing, compassionate mentor, the role for which Ali won his Oscar. Juan is an unlikely hero by white film standards: an onyx-skinned, broad black man in a durag draped in gold jewelry who sells dope to support himself and his partner, Teresa. However, the couple are not your cliched strung-out, poor-English-speaking drug slingers; they are kind, calm, generous, and careful to make Little comfortable. Juan offers Little financial support, a safe place to sleep, and hot meals when his mom cannot be the one to provide for him. In Juan and Teresa, Little finds unconditional love, trust, and eventually the opportunity to ask questions about his sexuality. The three share a safe space where Little feels like he can let down not just his guard, but also his burden of having to get by.
“Instead of Black’s story ending with him living his best gay life in Miami, Moonlight offers something more powerful than a display of sexual intimacy: the lack of it.”
In high school, with Juan gone and bullies sniffing out his queerness, teenage Chiron is very alone. His one friend, Kevin, the lone person he is ever sexually intimate with, is eventually coerced into beating him. Which is why it is both surprising and not that Chiron becomes the man known as Black as an adult.
To say Black is heteronormative is an understatement. He is not only beefed up and blinged out, but he has also assumed the dealer lifestyle of his predecessor Juan. Instead of Black’s story ending with him living his best gay life in Miami, which would be the typical Hollywood “coming out” conclusion, Moonlight offers something more powerful than a display of sexual intimacy: the lack of it.
Director Barry Jenkins masterfully shows the intense emptiness we all experience when we’re not fully seen—making the exchange of love all the more powerful when we are finally open to receiving it. No scene communicates this better than the last, in which Black finds himself with adult Kevin, not having sex, but simply wanting to be held.
A story of cultural boundaries and the emotional walls they build, Moonlight is most deserving of its best picture win for sharing with the world a beautiful story that didn’t seem possible to be told—let alone rewarded—only years ago.
This tale is especially important now that we have a president that groups all black people as the same, living in inner cities and having personal connections with everyone who shares a similar skin tone. It is especially important under an administration that won’t offer trans kids protections in school, even though they are bullied more than their straight peers. It is even important among liberal circles that may be pro-LGBTQ and anti-racism, but have a hard time understanding where those lives intersect. Moonlight is a movie about those nuances, but it is also simply about the barriers we all face in opening up.