A radiant film about queer identity starring people of colour, Moonlight’s historic Best Picture win at yesterday’s Oscars ceremony deserves to shine bright and should not be eclipsed by the monumental stuff up that saw presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway handed the already-announced Best Actress card.
Its coronation is the real story, and it is an incredible one. Hollywood A-listers looked on aghast as the revelation dropped that the already six-statuette heavy La La Land had been erroneously announced as Best Picture over rightful winner Moonlight, but for all the awful awkwardness, the sheer joy of writer/director Barry Jenkins was unmistakable. “Even in my dreams, this could not be true, but to hell with dreams, I’m done with it, because this is true. Oh my goodness.”
Moonlight is a revelation; the most beautiful gift to cinema in countless years. An incandescent poem wrought in light and sound, it swirls with love at the intersection of race, sexuality and masculinity. Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert, who share the lead role of Chiron at three key moments in this young black man’s life, its strength is in its subtlety, and its willingness to break stereotypes of both black and gay men.
A testament to the fear of opening your heart and receiving love in return, Moonlight brings audiences of any gender or sexuality up to speed with the problems of a world that’s still too slow to embrace a nuanced understanding of black lives and queer sexuality and the trials they face every day. It lays bare the brutality of school bullying - particularly of young queer kids castigated for a love they are yet to fully understand - that tars them with agonising shame.
Mahershala Ali, who plays Juan - a drug dealer who takes the youngest Chiron under his wing - with a staggering grace, rightfully claimed Best Supporting Actor. He is the first Muslim actor to be awarded by the Academy.
Jenkins is not queer, but shares a Liberty City upbringing with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, a queer man whose unproduced work for the stage - In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue - eventually became the film Moonlight. They both grew up with drug-addicted mothers, something McCraney touched on as they accepted together the Adapted Screenplay award at the start of the evening. “Thank god for my mother, who proved to me, through her struggles, and the struggles that Naomie Harris portrayed for you, that we can really be here and be somebody, two boys from Liberty City.”
Acknowledging the immensity of that first of three awards and the power of recognition in the Oscars arena, he added, “This goes out to all those black and brown boy and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves, we are trying to show you you and us, so thank you, thank you, this is for you.”
Jenkins, speaking first, highlighted the importance of diversity on our screens and made his disdain for the divisive new President clear. “All you people who feel that there’s no mirror for you, that your lives are not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back and for the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.”
We can only hope that once the hullabaloo surrounding the egregious Best Picture error subsides, the true import of Moonlight’s win will be widely recognised. After all, the Academy has been exceedingly slow to award its top prize to a queer movie. Last year Todd Haynes’ sublime adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical love story Carol was locked out of a nomination for both Best Picture and Best Director, despite almost universal critical praise. Stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara did get actors nods, as did screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, but it went home empty handed.
The last time a queer film came close was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which was infamously beaten to Best Picture in 2005 by Paul Haggis’ Crash. Before that, you’d have to go back to the ambiguity of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, which took out the top gong in 1970. Hopefully we do not have to wait anywhere near as long for Oscar to recognise the next big queer movie. In the meantime, let Moonlight shine centre stage.