By Tasha Saint-Louis
On February 26th at the 89th Annual Academy Awards, Moonlight made history as the first LGBTQ film and film with an all-black cast to win an Oscar for best picture. This came in good time as Black History Month was ending and other historical achievements were made—Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy, Tony, and Oscar while Mahershala Ali made history as the first Muslim to win an Oscar.
In addition to best picture and best supporting actor, the film won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay but their wins are not limited to the Academy. A refreshing take on the experiences of young Black boy’s coming of age and self-acceptance as a gay man, Moonlight has won countless other awards—183 others to be exact.
The reason why winning an Oscar is so important is because of the history of the Academy’s ‘snubs,’ or lack of inclusiveness, and because history was made during a crucial time for the LGBTQ and Black communities alike. This is a point in time that cannot be avoided; it is a time when all repressed groups need to become allies in the wake of Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, there are stereotypes in both communities about the other that have stalled necessary conversations for a long time. In the Black community, gay men are usually seen as effeminate and manipulative with ulterior motives or on the DL (down low) which ‘causes’ the spread of HIV. Meanwhile in the LGBTQ community, Black men are seen as immediately repulsed by gay men with an extremely ‘fragile’ sense of their masculinity. What Moonlight accomplishes is a way to see the intersection of the reality of a gay Black man.
The film is said to be based on the experiences of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins, per their acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards and takes place in the ghetto of Miami, Florida. The story is told in three acts that chronicle the childhood (i. Little), adolescence (ii. Chiron), and adulthood (iii. Black) of the main character Chiron (spoilers ahead!). Chiron lives in a poor neighborhood and is being raised by his drug-addicted mother, Paula. As Little, Chiron finds a father-figure in Juan, a drug dealer, and a second home with Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend. In this act, he learns how to swim, learns what ‘f**got’ is, and discovers that Juan deals drugs to his mother. As Chiron, he watches as his mother’s addiction worsens and continues to cope with the death of Juan. Chiron shares his first kiss with Kevin—his best friend—, confronts the school bully, and gets arrested. As Black, Chiron lives as a drug dealer in Atlanta, Georgia. Paula has found a sanctuary, a way to get better, but he still has nightmares about her. Kevin comes back into his life and offers to cook him a meal. At Kevin’s diner, Chiron learns that Kevin has a son and a failed relationship with his mother. Afterwards, Chiron reveals to Kevin at his place that he has never been touched by any other man. Kevin smiles, and the film ends with them embracing one another.
Students who have seen the film have praised how intimate yet powerful it is, sharing that they appreciate such a different perspective of the LGBTQ community. Thembisile Gxuluwe, Peer Mentor, creative artist and a senior here at Lincoln, stated, “[The film] is like real life, it was realistic. It gave you the Black experience; it gave the Black LGBT experience… It covers a lot of touchy subjects for LGBT youth.” To her, the film is akin to a gateway that will start a lot of conversations that need to take place. Gxuluwe also believes that the film “vocalized a lot of feelings that [LGBT youth] may have when they’re coming to their own, [and] come to their conclusions about their sexuality.” The film has garnered the same feedback from additional students, who became aware of the film upon its Oscar win.
Professor Nwenna Gates, however, had more to say about the film. A professor of Screenwriting, Contemporary Black Cinema, and Documenting the Pan African Aesthetic, Gates shared her opinions from the perspective of a filmmaker. Gates agrees that the film holds importance in how the story was told but questioned why Juan had to die. “I always demand from my screenwriting students to NOT kill off well developed, healthy, 3-dimensional black characters. Like can we give up this idea that black lives always have to end or end tragically?” Gates also disagreed with the turnout of the story, stating, “I’m an advocate for creating stories and films where black people win by their own accord. I didn’t sense that anyone was winning in Moonlight.” Despite these criticisms, Gates admired Jenkins’ techniques as a director and praised the film’s ambiance. “The silent moments, the use of music, the reversing of the film… the transitions of his boyhood to manhood, subtle reflections of the symbolism or the meaning of water for Chiron, and the close ups are magical.” Altogether this created an environment in which Jenkins “humanized a very masculine looking gay Black male…[which] is very important,” added Professor Gates.
Moonlight is a beautiful film that is filled with an intimacy that usually does not placed in the ‘hood.’ The lack of sensuality and graphic scenes made it all the more touching and sincere while taking care not to overwhelm audiences. The string of emotions, weaknesses, and methods throughout the phases of Chiron’s life created a sense of comradery. As a viewer, I related to his growing pains despite our different experiences. That’s what makes the film so powerful, it tells an uncommon story in a very relatable way that will prompt the Black and LGBTQ communities to develop new perspectives.