Moonlight is the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture – but it’s so much more
The 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Moonlight, has been described in a number of ways – as a queer film, a Black film, a love story, a tragic tale. And its main character, Chiron, has been typically defined as a young Black boy coming of age and to terms with his sexuality while growing up in poverty in Miami’s Liberty City projects. And while these descriptions aren’t inaccurate, they also feel somehow incomplete. For a film and character that seem to portray such a unique and singular experience, Moonlight is also a prime example of a truly intersectional representation of a life and the depth of what it means to be human, something that may never be fully described with words, but only as a feeling that comes from seeing the film.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney and directed by Barry Jenkins, the story is loosely based on McCraney’s own upbringing in Liberty City, where Jenkins also grew up. It tells Chiron’s story through three phases of his life – as a child, a teenager, and into early adulthood.
To say that Moonlight is a story about humanity is not to erase the fact that Chiron is a poor, Black boy, the son of a drug-addicted mother, whose questions about his sexuality follow him as he goes through adolescence and into adulthood. In fact, it’s the combination of these things – the broad themes of struggle and empathy, and the specific identities of Chiron as the character through which they are portrayed – that makes the film so important.
Of course, by now we’ve seen stories of LGBTQ characters and their struggles, though these are largely played by White actors. We’ve seen poor, Black characters as drug users or criminals more times than we can count. We’ve even seen these traits combined at least once that I can think of, in Omar Little, on HBO’s acclaimed series, The Wire. But what makes Moonlight unique is not just the intersection of these traits, but the tenderness and care with which Chiron and the other characters of the film are portrayed.
The saying goes that art imitates life, and it is as rare on-screen as it is in reality to see Black people, queer people, poor people, and all of the above treated as multi-dimensional and deserving of love and empathy, rather than being written off as victims of their own circumstances. Or to see drug users portrayed not as irredeemably and morally flawed, as with Paula, Chiron’s mother, who is abusive and addicted to crack in his childhood, but later recovers and attempts to repair her relationship with her adult son.
It is so crucial for marginalized people to see their lives reflected in media, and in ways that don’t just focus on tragedy. Pieces of Chiron’s story may have been told before, in fiction or in the news, but never so fully, and never with people like Jenkins and McCraney (who also won for Best Adapted Screenplay) at the helm. Drawing on their own experiences allowed the story to be crafted with a nuance and compassion that often gets left out when White writers imagine characters of color, or cis writers imagine trans characters, and so on. The warmth in Jenkins and McCraney’s writing, and in each actor’s performance, is transformational, not just for people who see themselves in the film’s characters, but for those who don’t as well. A key to empathy is exposure to difference, and seeing such a sensitive and raw portrayal on screen may help them have a greater understanding for real people like Chiron.
Mahershala Ali, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Juan, a drug dealer and father figure for young Chiron, said this in his acceptance speech for his win in the same category at the Screen Actors Guild Awards: "When we get caught up in the minutiae, the details that make us all different, there's two ways of seeing that. You can see the texture of that person, the qualities that make them unique, or you can go to war about it, say, 'That person is different from me, I don't like you, so let's battle.'”
Chiron’s story is unique, and Moonlight allows us to see the textures, rough and smooth, of its characters in a way that many have not been able to before, on screen or in the flesh. In an age being increasingly defined by division and hatred, Moonlight brings humanity and healing to places and people that rarely experience such treatment, and, hopefully, teaches others to do the same.
Moonlight is still showing in theatres nationwide and is available on DVD and online today.