At the 89th Academy Awards, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was awarded Best Picture. Featuring an entirely black cast, made on a relatively low $1.5 million budget, and produced independently, it seemed plausible that it could come closer than any black-directed and acted film before it to winning the grand prize – but not quite close enough. Thus, as La La Land was mistakenly summoned to the stage by celebrity hosts Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the familiar sting of disappointment settled back into the chests of those who dared to have hope. The Academy wasn’t ready for this film to win, America certainly isn’t, I thought as I watched the live broadcast. Then, after a bout of onstage commotion, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz informed the audience that Moonlight was, in fact, the real winner. Perhaps, after 89 years, we are ready.
Moonlight was a fan-favorite not only because it was visually stunning, brilliantly and realistically written, and thoughtfully cast, but because it daringly redefined what blackness could look and feel like in contemporary cinema. The film offered audiences a richly diverse insight into black love and black life, realms that are only occasionally squeezed into the slave narrative, civil rights reenactment, and African dictator drama that the Academy and its contemporaries more readily recognize. In fact, Moonlight will be the first Academy Award-winning film with an all-black cast that is not about race. Nonetheless, it offers a far more complex and relevant portrait of black life than has heretofore been critically lauded.
(A24/Plan B Entertainment)
Moonlight distinguishes itself in that it depicts life and love, even when lived and experienced by black characters, as a wholly and innately human experience. At first, it seems that the film’s subject matter is hyper-specific; the protagonist, Chiron, is a low-income, southern, black male struggling with his sexual identity while under the simultaneous care of a drug-addicted mother and a loving, accepting drug-dealing father figure. However, Chiron’s plight to find love and acceptance, both in himself and others, is one so universal that viewers empathize with his pain, embarrassment, fear, and – perhaps most poignantly – his joy.
Ultimately, it is not that audiences believe that black people experience emotions as deeply and intensely as other races, at least not consciously. What is groundbreaking, however, is seeing black characters be granted the permission and space to perform the full range of these human emotions onscreen, which ultimately deprives us all – although, especially viewers of color – of the transformational film-going experience of seeing all parts of ourselves acknowledged, understood, and represented by thoughtfully-developed and diverse characters. Moonlight is opening the doors to a genre of film that writes the humanity back into characters of color, and hopefully this will urge other filmmakers – and citizens – to do the same.