Why 'Moonlight' is the most important, necessary film of 2016
One of the most illuminating games you can play, either in a group or by yourself, is to try and name six female film directors. Off the top of your head, you’ll probably struggle. You can then make the game a little tougher: Name six black directors. Hell, name three that aren’t Spike Lee.
As the challenge builds, like a Russian nesting doll of minority filmmaking, you can splinter into themes. Name six films about gay men, six films about gay women. Name six movies anchored by black characters. If you know a thing about cinema, you’ll more than likely be able to name two or three for every one of these categories. But, try as you might, you’d be hard pressed to think of a single movie that combines several of these categories all at once: namely a fictional movie about black, gay men.
The gay black man exists, but you’d struggle to find him in cinema. So when a movie arrives that tracks the journey to self-actualisation for a young, gay black man, it’s cause for celebration.
Moonlight is director Barry Jenkins’ ode to black gay masculinity. Told over three distinct time periods in the life of one man, we first meet our protagonist as a child in the Miami projects, the son of a local drug dealer and a crack addict. Bullied at school for reasons he doesn’t yet understand, he apprehensively holds feelings for a boy in his neighborhood, feelings strange and new and barely able to be articulated. The film progresses into two further decades, each broken up by the protagonist’s ever-shifting persona. Known as ‘Little’ as a child, he is Chiron as a teen, and Black as a young man. Each incarnation linked by a sense of developing identity, one both nurtured and crippled by his surroundings.
Having premiered to rave reviews at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival earlier this month and subsequently the Toronto International Film Festival, Moonlight is already being primed for possible Oscar attention. But it faces an uphill struggle, not only in the shadow of an Academy that barely recognises non-white faces, but also in the historic treatment of gay-centric films in recent memory. Brokeback Mountain, starring two very famous (and famously heterosexual) actors, was notoriously snubbed for Best Picture by the much-maligned Crash back in 2005, while recent LGBT-themed efforts including The Danish Girl and The Imitation Game were trailed by accusations of whitewashing and the downplaying of homosexual themes.
But away from awards speculation, that most annoying, largely pointless barometer of apparent film quality, Moonlight is a radical breakthrough in black LGBT storytelling, a film guided by complex characters, emotional exploration, and the realities of being an oppressed minority within an oppressed minority. Even further, granting lead movie roles to non-white LGBT characters remains frustratingly illusive, and its potential effect on black gay youth is staggering. For a young black individual coming to terms with their sexuality, seeing somebody on-screen that looks like them, speaks like them, and has experiences and feelings close to their own, the power is undeniable.
Writing for Medium, cultural critic Charlene Haparimwi spoke of the film's importance: "Being gay and black is an intersectional issue because one is facing backlash from two prominent communities, the heterosexual community and the black community. Movies like Moonlight provide a safe space for much needed discussion for something that is typically swept under the rug."
Moonlight is also the first major black LGBT film since 2011’s Pariah to garner any significant media attention, and even Pariah was relegated to a tiny cough of a speciality release before being dumped on VOD. Moonlight should face an all-together different destiny, however, being distributed by the buzzy A24 Films (of Room, The Lobster and Under the Skin fame) and featuring a cast including Naomie Harris, musician Janelle Monae and current American Horror Story star Andre Holland.
Leave it to Vanity Fair’s brilliant Richard Lawson to sum up the film's power, calling it “a gorgeous and bruising and bountiful paean to the struggle for self… a breathtaking film with political urgency and a deep, compassionate humanity.” Moonlight is more needed than ever. So start waiting in line already.
Moonlight opens in select cities October 21.