PORTRAIT

Oscars 2017: Man in Moonlight

Oscars 2017: Man in Moonlight
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Hollywood simply couldn’t overlook the tender story of a Black queer protagonist

“IN ORDER FOR you to understand what happened last night [at the Oscars], you have to understand the phenomenon known as ‘peak blackness’,” explained the comedian Roy Wood Jr on The Daily Show. “Peak blackness is a rare metaphysical anomaly that can only occur when an amalgam of Black excellence comes together at the same societal intersection,” he said. What? “It’s when a lot of dope black shit happens at the same time.” Of course Moonlight was going to win. He explained that the win was a culmination of several recent events from the Black History Month and Beyonce’s pregnancy, to the coming back to life of Fredrick Douglas (the famed 19th century slave who became a journalist and civil rights advocate, and who recently Donald Trump alluded to in the present tense). A lot of dope black shit indeed.

The Best Picture race this time was clearly between La La Land and Moonlight. Two very different films—one a loving hat-tip to an older idealised time, and the other a searing depiction of the real present. Going into the Oscars this time, if there was really any political stand that needed to be spelt out by the Hollywood industry, it was not about which side of the fence it stands with respect to what is happening in the US nationally; it was about what they think of the politics within their own establishment. After years of what almost appears like systematic neglect, was the Hollywood dream factory finally going to extend itself and recognise and mirror the dreams of the African- American community that it almost never does?

They did this time. Peak blindness found its release in one of last year’s most exquisite films, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a film that overflows with humanity. Stories about queer protagonists, and that too people of colour, rarely ever make it to the screen. And Moonlight, based on a play Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is both—proudly Black and queer.

Moonlight stars an all-Black cast. There is almost no incidental White person, such a rare phenomenon for mainstream Hollywood that this in itself seems like a political choice

It is a touching film about what growing up as a gay man in disguise is like in a macho culture that frowns upon homosexuality as a weakness. It follows a gay Black protagonist growing up in a rough neighbourhood in three distinct chapters— as a bullied child yet unaware of his sexuality, as a troubled in-the-closet adolescent, and as a lonely adult who has constructed an overly masculine exterior. It a film about suppressing one’s identity and the crushing loneliness the decision fills you with. Yet, despite the grim subject, there is a certain amount of light-heartedness and tenderness about it.

Moonlight stars an all-Black cast. There is almost no incidental White person, such a rare phenomenon for mainstream Hollywood that this in itself almost seems like a political choice. Another America, unlike the America you are shown. The film takes you through all the familiar film tropes about African-American individuals—the drug hustler, the dopehead mother—and effortlessly dismantles every stereotype about them.

Jenkins, who grew up in the same housing project where the story is set, according to reports, had a tough time completing Moonlight. “There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible,” he said during his acceptance speech. “I couldn’t bring it to fruition. I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story.”

Last year in an interview with the video distributor Criterion Collection, Jenkins talked about how Wong Kar-wai’s films, in particular Chungking Express (1994) and In The Mood For Love (2000), made a deep impression on him. “Wong Kar- wai does a great job of taking interiority and translating it to the screen. Something you are taught not to do in film school. But I think it is very, very much tenable within the medium,” he says in the interview. Jenkins has done something similar with Moonlight.