“Moonlight” is 2016’s best movie, but its impact on black storytelling is much more important

Moonlight is among the most critically lauded Best Picture nominees ever made.
Moonlight is among the most critically lauded Best Picture nominees ever made.
Image: A24
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As a thought experiment, I sometimes ask myself, “What would they say about me if I were killed? I know how other black children, often killed by the state, are treated by the media. These stories never feel true; this is not how the black people I know live. These thought experiments always leave me fearful about what might happen if I became unable to control my own story.

The Oscar’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, however, has given me hope that perhaps there is a way for stories about the marginalized, made by the marginalized, to find space. The breakout film of the year has centered black masculinity and queerness in the public discourse—an impressive feat. Both a critical and commercial success, the film brilliantly explores how one’s environment and experiences can shape who that person becomes—or at least, how that person portrays him or herself to the outside world.

For black queer audiences, namely black men, the film serves as a kind of media affirmation that we exist and that there is space for good storytelling of our lives, too. For other audiences that may not deal so intimately with the kind of characters or narratives portrayed in the film, it serves as a way to safely and effectively cultivate empathy through a type of a cultural voyeurism. Instead of playing into white stereotypes about life on the street, the filmmakers created well-developed and nuanced characters who were as intellectually illuminating as they were entertaining. This, on top of Moonlight’s masterful script, direction, and cast, is the perfect recipe for a Hollywood hit.

Moonlight’s success suggests something profound about American art. The conversation around queer, black, and intersectional identities has infiltrated the pop cultural conversation in increasingly visible, and creative ways. Of course, in culture, the gaze shifts constantly. What is seen as profitable, fascinating, and sexy changes seasonally. This means our timely fascination with any particular experience or person will not remain of permanent cultural importance. This should not stop people from striving to transcend its more oppressive trends, however. Rather, we must remain ever-cognizant of the finite nature of all things that are to be commodified and sold.

What I do hope black creators continue to attempt to create and preserve is the strangeness of Moonlight.

Growing up, I always knew there was a beautiful strangeness about my hood. DJs would manipulate the voices of my favorite songs to slow them, to make the sounds long and thick like molasses, like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks, and we’d nod our heads to these musical creations. Crack-addicted neighbors would scream scriptures outside of sanctuaries and dilapidated buildings. Vibrantly colored clothes would wash over deep black skin—an enthralling juxtaposition. Sneakers would hang from strings in the thin air above our heads. There was something avant-garde about the “hood,” and Moonlight, finally, captured it.

In the vein of productions like Daughters of the Dust, Passing Strange, Tongues Untied, and Killer Of SheepMoonlight allowed itself to be weird. This is, perhaps, its most triumphant accomplishment. A black arthouse film has won Best Picture of the year. It did not musically score trauma or drama with heavy hip-hop verses or soulful gospel moans, instead filling the silence with orchestral beauty. It did not use violent language to stir the audience so all that all viewers could do was bear witness to the expression and the anger on the characters’ faces. Instead of using black bodies to communicate uber-stylized eroticism and desire, the director chose to find sensuality in the act of a character cooking.

Even the way Moonlight’s Best Picture win was announced was an odd thing to witness. The shock on the cast and crew’s faces was a moment where life most definitely mimicked art. Two black men from Liberty City, Miami were not supposed to take the year’s most prestigious film honor away from the folks who made a classic tale about a cis-heterosexual, white couple in Hollywood. But they did. And it was as surprising as it was marvelous.

Most importantly, at least to me, Moonlight resisted the urge to make the main character more palatable, more linear, more predictable and more familiar to a mainstream audience. The film disrupted almost everything we are commonly asked to expect from films featuring black people. The film left us with even more questions than it initially found us.

If the Oscars and the commercial success of Moonlight do nothing else, I hope they make it easier to make films about black people that take an abstract or avant-garde approach. In Hollywood, the real abstract idea is that black life is non-abstract. The flattening of our culture and experiences is a true act of cultural surrealism. Surely, a people that produced Prince, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Patti LaBelle, Missy Elliot, and George Clinton among so many, others cannot live so solidly in the realm of stereotype.

Indeed, the artistic liberties of black avant-garde work highlight the odd reality that is black life in America: An abstract event full of complexities, strangeness, the unexpected, and questions. Scholar Devyn Springer wrote, “You cannot dehumanize a people who create art.” If this is a truth, then you can’t oversimplify or make invisible a people that can produce the surreal.