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'Moonlight': a monumental narrative

When Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain lost to Paul Haggis’ Crash at the 2006 Academy Awards, many sat, blank faced and stupefied by the outcome, in front of their television screens, trying to understand it all. The former’s producer, James Schamus, opened up about the loss to Variety during the 10th anniversary of the film, saying that many people felt Crash established a safer political narrative. 

The Oscar debacle that unfolded several months ago initially drew similar reactions, at least until the correct winner was announced. Despite the blunders, Moonlight remains a monumental examination of Black identity and sexuality, and it should receive proper recognition, but not as “an upset.” Reactions to February’s onstage flub ranged from singing Jordan Horowitz’s praises, to blaming Jimmy Kimmel and Steve Harvey. The morning after appeared no different, with major outlets capturing Horowitz’s reaction and the ways he and the stars of La La Land were dealing with the whole ordeal. 

While unimaginably heartbreaking, Moonlight’s victory should not be so short-lived, in that it managed to outshine a film that still dominated with six Oscar victories. Barry Jenkins, the film’s director and a Florida State University alum, went on stage and, after recovering from shock, spoke of being raised in Liberty City and of South Florida’s supreme influence on his work. While astounding in its own right, La La Land speaks openly and honestly to anyone mercilessly chasing their dreams, but it’s not the first film to provide such a lens, as previous Oscar nominees embarked on similar stories. Films like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman have accomplished much the same narrative. 

Jenkins’ film of the tumult and imperfect love that surrounds his main character is a new perspective, as Black masculinity continues to find itself at the heart of society and politics today. Chiron, Moonlight’s protagonist, delicately tightropes the complicated techniques of life from his early childhood, asking Juan, played by Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali, about sexual identity. 

Ali, who is the first ever Muslim actor to win such an award, captures Miami and all its vibrancy in the gentle way his character provides for Chiron. His cool, yet massive personality complements the timidity of Chiron and adds an authenticity that brings the famed swimming scene to life. Black identity and what it means to be grounded in it is examined from all angles in the film—from Chiron’s spirited youth, to his isolating adulthood. 

In Greek mythology, Chiron is a centaur whose esteem is founded in the way his appearance differs from others like him. Black America has not had the luxury of experiencing a film that openly asks us to rethink identity and sexuality. It has not had the opportunity to revel in the kind of elegance provided by Moonlight about what it means to be Black and gay. Jenkins’ work provides a platform for anyone who once thought they were alone in that conversation, for anyone who felt bogged down by clouds of confusion and opposition. Despite the unruliness of the award show, one shouldn’t forget how impressive Moonlight remains. Much like the film’s main anecdote, that particular victory was for all those Black bodies turned blue under the night sky. 

Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School.

Jamal Michel

Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School. His column runs on alternate Fridays.


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