Moonlight and the Oscar: Political Pandering or Intersectional Masterpiece?
Moonlight is not a perfect film. There, I’ve said it. It’s out in the open and something which establishes the tone of this piece. Yet the question remains: should Moonlight win Best Picture at the Academy Awards?
These initial comments may come off as calloused to mention so early, so I’ll temper it greatly: Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is thematically an incredible film. Its excellence is not founded solely on representing the queer experience without relying on the tropes of gay culture, or its ability to be a black film not just about what it means to be black. Instead, it carefully studies identity’s episodic development in a stratified society with ostracized individuals tempted by the reassuring dominance of stabilizing expectations in the face of alterity. That’s just it though. For a film heralded as a landmark (for its three-part slam-dunk of representing race, class, and sexual divides) it fails in providing the type of story that progresses with fluency and relates events in an effortless fashion. It’s the kind of presentation expected from a great identity drama that at best can be nominated for Best Picture but perhaps not a winner for the top prize. Too often while watching the film and ruminating retrospectively I found myself thinking, “It’s definitely a great film, but is it Best Picture good?”
Something felt eerily left out of the film and not in a deliberate way. The purposeful minimalism seems to go too far, and Jenkin’s attempt at isolating his audience backfires a little bit, making challenging content a bit more inaccessible and unwieldy for the silver screen at times. In addition, the suspension of disbelief’s veil is lifted throughout the film in a way starkly contrasted to a film like La La Land where the viewer is thrown so deeply into the story and dreams of its characters, that the fiction and reality of scenes blend seamlessly, much like how that film infuses a modern fascination with professional fame and the inspirational journey to stardom vis à vis the golden age of ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood. It’s easy to see La La Land as the privilege of white pursual juxtaposed with minority survivalism, but it shouldn’t matter if a privileged movie is (if it is) a more accomplished film. In Moonlight moments seem forced. A perfect example rests in Chiron’s après-sexual altercation with the liaison’s partner Kevin, literally the next day. The day after their amour, Kevin is forced by a gang of boys to beat up Chiron purely by happenstance. Rather than add more meat to the narrative, Jenkin’s chooses to limit here the expectations of the audience, keeping too fresh in our memory their carnal beach-love together with the rapid succession of violence. Either this or Jenkin’s story-telling simply could not envisage the awkward relationship of the two gay classmates afterward, (the awkward post-colital assessment of the other that discerns if the intercourse was love or lust) something apparently too challenging to depict on-screen. These moments are few and far between but unprepossessing enough to detract from an immersive experience.
Yet it cannot be emphasized enough that the deft hand of Jenkins camera work and the acting of his cast (although some of the younger characters acting, in its tough-guy aping feels a bit unbelievable) draws people into the characters and story, an end-to-end slathering of themes dealing with black, gay, and Marxist crises. Following in the tradition of the bildungsroman, our protagonist’s evolution through the three chapter’s titles (Little to Chiron, and Chiron to Black) denotes his achieved autonomy, but greets the labeled fate similar to Ellison’s Invisible Man, a private world of his closet homosexuality never reconciling with his public identity. Superficially, Chiron survives but his tense identity feels entangled in the stereotypes of black masculinity, the real tragedy being this preference of sustainable artifice over the uncaging of a repressed homosexuality. What little he has due to his fate as an African-American, is threatened to be lost by the emergent “coming out” that has the capacity to sever ties with his mother and financial stability in being a dealer. America’s treatment of both gay and black identity are already demonized and to permit both (sometimes opposing) forces to be expressed can push one from the demimonde into complete alienation. The episodic structure and controlled cinematography are done masterfully, speaking to the way in which characters are thrown together and then pulled taught without breaking entirely, a sexual or violent tension that keeps seemingly mundane conversations from ever slipping into dull filler. The opening scene swirls around the characters exposing the defenseless 360-degree view of their environment, dancing with the banal movements of the hustlers. However, the sparseness of the film’s tone seems ill-suited or unwieldy for a movie of this scope, a sort of clunkier, toned-down Tree of Life in its portrait of the spectacular real, but without the intense experimentation of perspectives and editing. Of course, the minimalism is purposeful, and we do share functioning moments of empathy, worry, and fear, backed by nothing but the sound of a sea breeze coming off the Atlantic.
Jenkin’s challenge in this movie is clear: how to create a character who is relatable yet respectful to the differing paradigm of Chiron’s character against the heteronormative dispensation of its audiences. Answer: create an aggressively alienated individual and seize hold of the setting, characters, and dialogue of your story. But this stripped-down approach, as effective as it is at portraying Chiron’s round-peg square-hole identity crisis, fails to keep a constant élan of filmic vitality to it, a style reserved for movies without a more purposeful budget. And for it to realize that attempt, it demands a smoother flow between shots. Perhaps a strength for some, it dips in and out of big-budget and arthouse too often, feeling as if it wants to appeal to a mainstream audience while tugging away the streamlined perfection of a smooth story towards indie cinema’s less palatable tendencies. The difficulty in that too often fails to get the viewer placed within the events of the story. Here, it feels that Jenkin went for the gold, when he should have reached for the bronze, and ended up walking away with a silver.
I will say that the movie, as obviously black-centric as it is, is never simply a black movie. Characters speak openly about their blackness and role in a society largely indifferent to injustices pitted against them, and as a white viewer, I never felt ostracized, never felt like an exploitive voyeur. Perhaps the fact that Moonlight is a black movie about being gay more than it is a black movie about being that black that forces the audience to tackle the more uncomfortable issue of sexuality. It’s as if blacks and whites together see this wayward individual in the same way – a man of sexual deviancies we can’t understand but love and hope for. We love sex but witnessing a gay scene is much more difficult or less fetishizing than say violence towards African-Americans. The gay sex scene serves as the pearl in the oyster at conveying the underlying intensity behind the movie’s political message, just as manifestations of physical aggression towards blacks is that pearl. This intense core of the work that is latent and occasionally uncloaks itself, induces all other scenes to orbit around it in some form. Think the curb-stomp scene of American History X where the pent-up emotions of a principle character finds a means of expression in some socially extreme scene, usually violent or sexual but not the film’s climax per se. In America, blacks are mishandled and disregarded by the system, but much of the country’s leaders think that being gay is analogous to a mental disorder, something that should not be allowed to reproduce or spread. Because gay identity is an issue heteronormative blacks and whites are still hesitant to view, their blackness disappears and the complexities of sexuality largely erase a lack of racial empathy, and in turn generating a love for Chiron as he grapples with his desires and environment.
The film’s Barthian appreciation of the interpretative is one of the strongest qualities of Jenkin’s presentation, in the same vein as French New Wave’s depiction of non-conformist social realism. When we reach the dénouement we find a final scene of anxious peace. The sweet yet latent bitterness evincing a nostos to one’s comfort and company, but the realization a maintained love seems a long way off, if accessible at all. Any sense of amour proper fades with the camera’s cut to credits. Yet in another view, Chiron harmonizes the masculine and feminine characters within him, echoing back to his sitting at the dinner table with Juan and his wife, Teresa where he had opened up to disclose his past to the mother figure, but immediately clams up when the gentle yet authoritatively perceived masculine, Juan, irrupts. It was here at the beginning that the two halves of the androgynous self, distanced themselves, first opting for the child’s love for the mother (feminine), then the violent action that initiates the masculine stage at the end of part ii and all of part iii, and finally the hope that both parts of the dyad can be resolved in his expressed homosexuality. And in yet another interpretation, you can’t help but fear the worse, where the blue and red lights of part ii and iii augur Chiron being swept up by the system, where class and race swallow whole the prospects of quelling the Eros inside. It’s not accidental that the final section is designated Black, presaging the threats of a punitive world so fixed on melanin and sexual preference.
My largest complaint is that too much of the film’s adulation seems to derive from Moonlight’s right-place right-time position. 12 Years a Slave (a superior and justified film for Best Picture) appears in a similar (moon)light as a film with an overt political message but still retaining a consummate, nearly perfect understanding of pacing, vision, and embroiled characterization. In an age when film reviewers and film industry have continuously failed at accurately representing black films and films dealing with sexuality, it has been coming for quite some time to honor a movie with the prestige of say, the Academy Award for Best Picture in our Black Lives Matter, Trayvon Martin, #oscarssowhite epoch that speaks to the impact of white values on ethnic lives outside of the historical excuse of, “yeah, but that was a long time ago, things are great now.” Depending on one’s criteria for valuing film and really art as a whole, a movie like Moonlight could either mean a political victory for representing a century’s worth of disregard to acknowledging the accomplishments black film – or to others, an expertly crafted movie that happens to be about social conditions involving queer and black identity. Or – hopefully – both. In other words, what motivates this film? The craft or the message?
It is controversial to say, but I don’t think the best of art should fall in line with the motivations of affirmative action lest the criteria influences the whole of the standards. The purpose of affirmative action is for the disenfranchised to gain access to worlds not dominate them. The gains may be higher, but it sacrifices the entire form to be controlled by a protean set of values politicized by whichever ideology (hopefully) has the best intentions. It’s the built-in racism of the elites that would have made a film like 12 Years a Slave impossible to win, which it thankfully did, but having a film win due to its political message and not its quality is insulting not only to the art form but to those it is aimed at empowering for its falsity in achievement and its establishment of spurious criteria for success. Should the judgement of art be predicated on its political achievements rather than originality, intrigue, and vision? It’s in cases like this that Moonlight’s temporal shifts and character motivation (basic elements of successful story-telling) fail to fulfill the requirements that dramaturgy necessitates. In the grand scope of things, what may appear as petty caviling on my part is more accurately an exasperation with cases of trading off narrative consistency and consummate forms for political gestures and institutional pandering, albeit emancipatory ones.
The two heavyweights coming into the Oscars this year is the fan favorite La La Land and this essay’s Moonlight. The standoff to come could not be a more apposite competition between the worthy embodiments of an aesthetic and anodyne respect for the canon and the jarring reevaluation of identity formation and political decentering. In our post-structuralist world where we each choose the most appropriate lens of subjectivity, (the speciously objective view of the white male, or the feminist, queer, or cultural criticisms that take into account the celebrated stereotypes that are tacitly propagated by the former) the two flicks force viewers and the Academy’s judges to adorn the laurels of greatness on one of these bifurcated trends in art and culture. As the idea of value and quality seem to always fall in line with political motivations and maintaining hegemony, any sense of any innate objectivity seems less and less obtainable. Perhaps it would be a benevolent move on our culture’s part to redefine quality as that which fulfills political and societal emancipation. Any true Marxist or feminist should think as much.
Yet our responsibility to aesthetic consideration is too great and the adherence to some poetic tradition cannot be repudiated in entirety. The critic maintains that a sort of malleable scaffolding is necessary to hold up the very idea of artistic mediums – lest we fall. This scaffolding structures the sort of rule-making that creates genres and new form of arts, a study of forms and their negations that has been the standard for considering and reconsidering what constitutes art from being a masterpiece or a piece of propaganda. While it has long been overdo to blow open the canon for African-American film-makers like Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, and Steve McQueen to receive their due, we should also be cautious in giving out rewards to art that ingratiates upset whites and disenfranchised blacks and instead focus on elevating vehement statements of the human spirit regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. I would love nothing more than to extol political films that reinvent the medium and transform it in their image but only if they develop in the way highly functioning works of art deserve. Certain rules cannot be abnegated with immediacy, qualities like artistic deliberation, a development of the medium, and an interrogation of the human condition are criteria that should undergird the motivation of the craft. Though the avant-garde occasionally abstains from these requirements, the vast majority of art and that which would be considered a Best Picture nominee adheres to these standards. Whether we know it or not, this is what all critics strive for, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
Ultimately Moonlight performs as an accomplished film, as poetic as a photo album, about as multi-dimensional as intimate social realism can be, and yes – a needed and necessary film in a changing America. Upon examination, the motivations and complications of the narrative’s motions, occasionally jerky at times, develops with a thematic richness like the multi-layered petals of an ever-blooming lotus. To relate to the locale, the way that the sand, waves, and breeze intermingle and impact the senses, deserves a meditative absorption that can be taken in all at once in the same way that isolated forces add up to the sum of parts know as intersectionalism. One half of the movie is about beauty, form, and sensory experience - the other half, the political self-examination of our nation's sordid treatment of the vulnerable, a violence and exclusion directed at otherness The question of whether Moonlight or La La Land should take home the gilded baldy known as the Oscar for Best Picture is more accurately a question of whether we value form or motive, narrative or theme, the look of a train or the direction that that train is heading.