Moonlight’s the Best Picture of the Year.
Talking about why it beat La La Land, and how incredible that really is, matters.
“I think it’s important people see themselves in film, but it’s even more important they see people they maybe don’t know as well.” — Barry Jenkins, Director of Moonlight.
Moonlight is — inarguably — a powerful movie. It is well-made and its statement is well-crafted. It is both, absolutely breath-taking and incredibly inspiring, to know that black artists can create cinematic masterpieces and reach international recognition.
Perhaps, the Academy is ready to change in light of statistics and the #OscarSoWhite social media campaigns. While I wouldn’t get our hopes up just yet, it’s important to acknowledge that the overlap of blackness and queerness provide a very different, unspoken language that one might not be too familiar with. Moonlight’s vehicle for this language comes in the form of Chiron’s struggle: dealing with the incredible pressure supplied by being a black male in America, growing up in a time where homophobia heightened violence and bullying, Chiron dons his armor and wears it. This path of expression is, undoubtedly, an important step in the direction of breaking free of the grip that white, heteronormative narratives have on Hollywood.
In the context of the film, we’ve encountered more conversation surrounding black masculinity, poverty, queerness, and the inter-connected boundaries between the issues that complicate our lives. In the context of the award ceremony, we are seeing the industry deal with broader questions of white fragility playing out upon the silver screen and beginning to glimpse a future in which the Academy Awards may finally be turning a new leaf.
But is it worth it to look to the Academy Awards as anything more than a prestigious ceremony? Look no further than the drama surrounding White Helmet’s filmmaker. Khaled Khateeb was unable to attend the event and celebrate his documentary’s win, due to a detainment with the Department of Homeland Security and a visa issue. Given the current political climate, it acts as a reminder that these films have influence far behind the audiences they touch. The stories that they tell do not necessarily start when the theater opens, and they do not necessarily end when the film stops rolling.
The discussion on what it means to be Black and queer will almost certainly continue in the coming years, as Moonlight is, by all accounts, a cinematographic masterpiece. Equally important, and yet more likely to dominate the next few weeks of coverage in the aftermath of the Awards ceremony, is the unsuitable comparisons to Damien Chazelle’s, La La Land.
How does La La Land compare?
La La Land came out swinging, with a record-breaking 14 Academy Award nominations; it did a clean sweep at the Golden Globes, walking away with the awards for all seven of the categories it received nominations for. By all accounts, leading up to the Oscars, it was the darling ode to Hollywood that everyone within my circle expected to win, whether they enjoyed the movie or not. When its award for Best Picture turned out to be a flub, a pleasant surprised followed as the actors called Moonlight’s crew up to the stage in what followed.
Already, conversation has appeared, debating the terms of the Academy’s judgement. Some characterize the recent critique of La La Land’s undeveloped representation of jazz culture as, “underserved.” While it’s important to consider why the story of Moonlight may be more powerful than the story of La La Land, this can’t be done without acknowledging just how problematic Chazelle’s nostalgic musical really is.
To put this to rest, Moonlight is the better picture, and winning isn’t very enticing when it isn’t clear on how, or why, the Academy chose the way it chose. Did it do so because of the pressure #OscarSoWhite placed on the establishment? I think the answer is more complicated than simply saying this was the year they decided to pull their token card.
This was the year black movies were recognized.
I read August Wilson’s, Fences, in high school, relating with the deeply entrenched values Black culture had for fatherhood and masculinity. Ideas of responsibility, when black fathers were pushed to the brink, rising in the form of some near-unhinged conflict between love and acceptance. Like the poetry of Langston Hughes, the stories of Zora Neale Hurston, and the novels of Richard White, Fences was another cultural commentary on what it meant to be black in America. Every black student and artist that invests in their own black literacy, and history, knows of these lessons told through the written word. These works could make you ask yourself about what being black really meant, and, if it didn’t, you’d at least identify with the common struggles you faced with the characters inside.
Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures were the big three in terms of Black cinematography. Each was opening the door to an important lens about what love, family, and empowerment mean in Black culture and legacy — both past and present. At the Academy Awards, the world recognized Viola Davis for the supporting role she played in Fences’ movie adaptation. Viola Davis, powerfully, sculpted the feeling and emotion that wrapped up every aspiring black artist in this day and age with these words from her acceptance speech:
“You know, there is one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered and that’s the graveyard.” — Viola Davis, acceptance speech for Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Black artists are being constantly reminded of our legacy; whether it is in the pushback our family presents to our craft, or from the history we learn whenever we revisit the sources that inspire us, we know all too well the harsh truth that we are trying to move away from. Our culture and treatment in this society is inextricably tied to the past; the racism doesn’t disappear overnight.
For just a moment, however, what the recognition of Moonlight provides is the chance to inspire another generation to ask the meaningful questions — it is the set-up to the eventual punchline that rids ourselves of harmful practices that we all embrace in our livelihoods. It asks us to get better — to be better — while also reminding us to forgive ourselves.
The Academy is showing that it doesn’t need to continue fantasizing about Hollywood, through its films. If La La Land, has been described as an ode to Hollywood, as I mentioned before, then Moonlight can be described as an ode to acceptance and how complex the reality behind acceptance is. Recent events have shown how twisted fear can make people; the policies enacted by the current administration have been described as reprehensible by many within the industry — those with clout have spoken in tangential terms, all but referring directly to the man in charge. Wary to invest too much trust in the Academy, for now it is more comfortable to simply be proud of the stories Moonlight exhumes, as Davis’ acceptance speech implies.
La La Land’s leverage of jazz through a white protagonist erases the art’s uniquely black presence in the musical world. Its commentary is limited by its inability to acknowledge just how important black culture is to jazz. Chazelle’s film does the opposite of exhuming, opting to instead deny the breath of the many who found success inaccessible during the time Sebastian and Mia’s characters recollect for their inspiration. It is about a lifestyle that is largely inaccessible to the many men, women, and gender non-conforming people who might make up Los Angeles on any given day.
It fails to provide the gravitas that powerful artworks seek; likely, this movie was carried by the starpower Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone hold. They can’t quite sing nor can they quite dance, nor does the movie successfully uphold the concepts behind their actions. Rather, it shines in the ‘shiny’ parts, where music comes together to convey the emotions they might face. In some ways, the only reason the mediocre message the movie puts forth survives in any comparison to, Moonlight, is the amount of people who relate to the characters.
If you sifted out all of the mansplaining and diluting of culture, you’d get a musical about the tensions between work and love, finding a home in Los Angeles, and actually succeeding with personal creativity without selling out. The characters act as self-inserts for audience members —you relate to Sebastian and Mia’s desires to make something of themselves and perhaps, relate to the nostalgia of the past this movie tries to remind you of. It’s a story of struggling artists; as white protagonists have long dominated the film industry, people of color are already used to finding ways to relate to the characters that look different from themselves — we grew up with movies starring white people, some, exclusively so. In a story like Moonlight, self-insertion isn’t as tenable a prospect for the audience — it takes much more effort to empathize with someone who is different from yourself.
In the case of Moonlight, we’re asked, not to just see ourselves in Chiron, but, to see others as Chiron. When leaving this movie, you want to walk away thinking about the brutal masculinity pressures society imposes upon black boys in poor neighborhoods. You want to leave the theater, knowing you entered Chiron’s world (and the world of the many children and grown men he represents), fleshing out his insecurities, observing how different his life must be from your own. You should be conscious, that not every movie needs to be a self-insertion, and you don’t have to be the protagonist to want things to change. Moonlight really tells us to empathize without necessarily having to relate; it is asking us to back away from our initial urge to be like, and simply work on the internal urge to be with the people Chiron represents, in solidarity.
You might begin to broaden your considerations for the culture, going above and beyond the prompts the movie puts forth: how does, for example, the association of queerness and literacy affect a black boy’s willingness to excel in academics? We’ve seen that it is possible for there to be recognition of works that make us think, feel, and — most importantly — relate, across racial and gender guidelines. Queerness and race have both been, in different ways, criminalized.
Moonlight didn’t win because it was filled with token diversity characters. Before tonight, it had received overwhelming support from critics all over the world. It currently has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, in comparison to La La Land’s 93%; whether those are accountable gauges of quality or not, they do show that there’s some kind of agreement going on here.
Dreams are expensive to have.
Where some find their power films to be the embodiment of La La Land’s modern-day musical, others find it in the reclamation of what it means to love, be black, and be queer, in Moonlight. When you don’t begin at the same starting line, your experiences will relate differently. I want to step away from this constant comparison of La La Land and Moonlight, because they are not compatible narratives. One was created to be a self-insert.
Moonlight doesn’t show often in the movie theaters near me; the only showtime is at 11:30am, and 5:30pm, at a single theater. La La Land, on the other hand, has had plenty of opportunity to be seen, which is something telling about the situation we find ourselves in.
Moonlight tells a story, asking you to reflect upon the experience it narrates. If you are black, you will relate, but, unless you are both black and queer, it is only then that you might possibly see yourself directly in Chiron’s struggle. This is not only for those interested in gaining a foothold of understanding of what black culture is like (those on the outside); it is also a critique of how black culture has alienated and harmed the community members who don’t align with the performance of masculinity that is expected of ‘black boys’. Moonlight, is stretching out its arms to get those who aren’t in Chiron’s position to look harder at how they deal with their internalized insecurities. It is asking them to redefine the roles gender plays in our lives — you leave a showing asking, is liberation, in all of its shapes and forms, possible?
“In repeated viewings, Moonlight can let us bathe our eyes and minds in its baptismal waters, allowing us to imagine American anew each time. It shows us that masculinity needn’t be white or predatory or dependent upon dominating women. Indeed, Black masculinity can be as gentle as a man holding a boy in his arms in the sea — and the world would be better for it.” — Steven Thrasher, on “Moonlight is the Best Film of the Year”
If you want to believe that La La Land was snubbed, feel free.
It’s important to understand that we shouldn’t be pitting these films against each other, to knock one another down. We should be valuing what they do well, and critiquing what they do wrong. A film about a white man in LA explaining the culture of jazz is ironic; if you don’t see the irony, you don’t really know the roots of jazz. (That isn’t to say white men can’t become jazz musicians; it’s to highlight something more specific in regards to the way we represent music history in cinema). No homage can be complete without a reference to the culture accompanying it; any work that attempts to say it is honoring it, without paying respect to Black culture (and those multifaceted implications), is failing to honor it.
These are very different projects. Moonlight is the type of film that changes the paradigm — I am absolutely sure there will be academics waiting to tear into the many implications it holds during the unpacking process that will follow the Oscars. La La Land, doesn’t hold that same kind of gravitas; even in discussions that try to compare the two, you get a vague feeling that this isn’t a fair match up.
What the choice shows is that there’s a little, small hope that the Academy Awards is trying to say something. It’s good that it is trying to acknowledge that the uplifting of black, queer voices is a necessary one — one much more necessary than that of chasing yet another version of the American dream, where the inaccessibility to it is invisible to all of those who benefit from it.
Moonlight won, and I think that’s powerful, but, I will avoid reasoning with an institution that is known to skew white, nor will I shower it with praise when it finally overcomes whatever challenges of internal racism and misogyny might still linger, invisible to those who aren’t knowledgeable of its inner workings.
What I will say, is that, just by being nominated, and even by winning, Moonlight has gotten something that won’t be given up. It’s gotten recognition. You are participating in the discourse and conversation about the meaning it holds, when you read this. Even those who don’t care, who waste breath asking critics to stop serving out ‘token’ awards, are helping to raise the voices within the film. Those who don’t have an opinion are now more likely to watch this film and be exposed to the lessons within. I am glad that people are more willing to deal with the uncomfortable and face the difficult questions that films like Moonlight bring.
And, yet, I know that there will be a long way to go before this reflects neatly on the many who simply do not care about the struggles Chiron faces in Miami. There are many who would rather hear a white man talk about jazz, instead of reading up on the history of the many black musicians who created the genre. There are many who do not care about Black bodies. There are many who don’t care about the LGBT community.
Art shows that we can care; empathy isn’t some fantasy that can never be obtained. It provides hope.
Right now, that’s just what we need.
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