BY Meghan Hehir
THIS decade, we bore witness to a pivotal moment in cinematic history. The cast and crew of Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND (2016) stood on stage at the Academy Awards to accept the top award, when producer Jordan Horowitz stepped up to the microphone: “Guys, wait, I’m sorry. No, there’s been a mistake. MOONLIGHT, you guys won Best Picture”. The coming-of-age drama, made on a $1.5million budget and shot in three weeks had managed to snatch the victory from the jaws of its glitzy, glamorous competitor, which until then had swept the board clean at every award show. Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT (2016) made history, becoming the first LGBTQ+ film, and first film with an all-Black cast, to win Best Picture. The film could have marked a new age of queer cinema – an age that finally let its characters love freely and be liberated by it – but as we leave this decade behind, we might ask to what extent did MOONLIGHT define the decade and what does the future of queer cinema look like?
MOONLIGHT is a searing portrait of identity that acknowledges life’s complications and cruel nature but relishes in the moments of joy and freedom. The film's protagonist is Chiron, a young boy who grows up across three chapters and three characterisations: Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Trevante Rhodes). Chiron is young, Black and gay, living in hyper-masculine Miami. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug addict and his father-figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is a drug dealer. The irony is not lost on any of the characters here: Juan knows that his profession is the reason for Chiron’s unhappiness but does his best to look after him, feeding him and teaching him important lessons like how to swim and stand up to bullies. MOONLIGHT could easily become predictable at this point. Juan could have taken Chiron under his wing in order to teach him how to be like him, but the film takes a different approach. Juan nourishes Chiron and tells him, crucially, “At some point in your life you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t nobody gonna make that decision for you.” He encourages him to believe in himself and, vitally, to take ownership of his identity. As he grows up, we see Chiron struggle with first love through his teen years in the film’s second chapter, and flourish, almost unrecognisably, into a beautiful, confident young man in its third.
Ali’s Juan only seen for the first 25 minutes but his presence is felt throughout, carefully carving the film and the characters within it. “Who is you, Chiron?” is a question that keeps appearing throughout this narrative. There is no grand, melodramatic scene where Chiron stands in the rain and cries “This is who I am!” Instead, we are shown, in startlingly intimate detail. Jenkins often positions the audience in between two characters so they look to you rather than past you, so you are never watching a conversation, you are part of it. Like Juan, MOONLIGHT never preaches. An emotional story like this is so difficult to achieve and honour. MOONLIGHT is a victory, not only as a story for young, Black and queer communities, but cinematically too.
The ending cements MOONLIGHT’s greatness. The third act is with Chiron, now a man, as he travels back to Miami to see Kevin (André Holland), someone he went to school with and fell in love with. The pair have not seen each other in 10 years, and Kevin has had a child with an ex-girlfriend, telling Chiron he feels fulfilled in his role as a father. The two catch up over dinner in the diner where Kevin works and the romantic tension is astounding. To see these young Black men, unbothered by the world around them, reconnecting over dinner to Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” is triumphantly romantic. We leave these characters, and this story, back at Kevin’s apartment. Chiron tells him that after one night together at a beach when they were teenagers, there has never been anyone else. Kevin holds Chiron and the curtains close on the pair of them genuinely happy; not falling in love again, but content. MOONLIGHT subverts traditional expectations of a romance film but, by doing so, gives it the power it possesses.
Queer cinema and tragedy have an almost mutually exclusive connection. Within these stories, the characters’ ability and desire for love is often limited by something, whether it is HIV/AIDs and death as explored in BPM (Robin Campillo 2017), A SINGLE MAN (Tom Ford 2009) and PRIDE (Matthew Warchus 2014), or the unaccepting conservative families of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Ang Lee 2005) and BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER (Jamie Babbit 1999), or the consequences of drug addiction in ROCKETMAN (Dexter Fletcher 2019). Gay misery is as common a trope in queer cinema as the happy ending is in the heteronormative narrative.
This idea of gay tragedy can be defined by the “Bury Your Gays” trope, the idea that queer characters are less important and more expendable than their straight counterparts. For example, IT: CHAPTER 2 (Andrés Muschietti 2019) opens with a graphic homophobic attack on two gay men. The more flamboyant of the pair is the main target of the attack and is then subsequently eaten alive by Pennywise the Clown. His more conservative “straight-passing” partner is restrained and forced to watch both attacks. His conservatism is what saves him but his sexuality is still punishable, in this case by PTSD. Homosexuality has always been a target; the more openly (or stereotypically) gay you are, the bigger your target becomes. This goes for all non-normative characters; Hollywood has been scrambling to appear more inclusive and yet in consistently well-performing and popular genres like horror, minorities are still stereotypically the first to die in a group-focused narrative.
Hollywood has a strange relationship with queer representation, often opting for discreet homoeroticism than championing an openly gay character. For the most part, despite how hard they try to disguise it, Hollywood is not a welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community and so queer stories are usually found in independent features. The last decade has seen some fantastic LGBTQ+ love stories but lots that have been tipped as having mainstream appeal have been post-2016 releases. From CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Luca Guadagnino 2017), GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (Francis Lee 2017), THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (Desiree Akhavan 2018) and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma 2019), recent queer cinema has been grabbing the attention of critics, award voting bodies and mainstream audiences alike, and it could be in response to a single film.
MOONLIGHT’s win at the Oscars in early 2017 was significant not just for the mix-up, or for the casting choices, or the love story. To choose MOONLIGHT over LA LA LAND’s ode to Classical Hollywood was a sign that the industry was willing to change. It is hard to know what the future will look like for queer cinema, but for an unsuspecting film like this to triumphantly discard the notorious Bury Your Gays trope, and for it to be awarded the highest honour in achievements for motion pictures, is surely a good sign.
In such harsh and hostile times, MOONLIGHT’s power and importance has only strengthened. Despite the assumption that there are equal rights for all, for many Black and queer people the target on their backs still weighs heavy. MOONLIGHT is a liberation film for the marginalised. Its release followed #BlackLivesMatter back in 2013, and #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, where the need for Black representation was long overdue, and of imperative importance in the film industry. To this dire need, MOONLIGHT is unapologetic and gentle. It is a film that, like Juan, encourages you to take ownership of yourself. It is pride incarnate.
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