“Moonlight” and the sadness label

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Hannah Cooper/Staff

At the beginning of the movie “Moonlight,” a young boy is chased into an abandoned, boarded-up home by his bullies — three boys armed with slurs and sticks. He locks the door and sits in the dark, safe. Then, hands pull down a boarded window. Light fills the room. But the boys are gone; instead, a man steps inside and urges the little boy to come outside. When the boy hesitates, the man turns and says, “Come on now. Can’t be no worse out here.”

“Moonlight,” a coming-of-age film about a black boy’s relationship with his sexuality, made headlines at last week’s Oscars when it became the surprise winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. By now, the moment has been plastered on every social media site—the cast of “La La Land” accepting the award, the confusion as a man yelled “There’s been a mistake,” the cast of “Moonlight” jumping to its feet, shocked. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s teary reaction has reached twitter feeds. Watching this mix-up at home, I felt guilty. I hadn’t watched “Moonlight.” I was afraid it would be too sad.

“In doing this, I quarantine sadness. I skirt around its edges.”

When the world seems like a distorted reality television show, I turn to the fluff and frills. Whether that’s the effervescent musical “La La Land” or the slightly less charming “The Bachelor,” I search for saturated, fantastical distractions. “Isn’t the real world sad enough?” I ask myself, clicking through soapy teen television shows. “Do I really want to watch a little boy being bullied and abused because of his sexual orientation?” In doing this, I quarantine sadness. I skirt around its edges.

This is not an unusual phenomenon. For many of us in the midst of petitions, panels and protests, burnout has become an occasional side effect. We call our political representatives, we march with our friends, and we watch the news — the number of articles I’ve hate-read about Kellyanne Conaway is entering the double-digits — but sometimes, it seems futile. Between midterms and fears about health insurance, safety and deportation, entertainment becomes a refuge. Sadness gets swept under the rug.

But what happens when we remain, as the little boy, in the dark, boarded-up house? What happens when we don’t acknowledge that for many people, there is no “refuge” from daily life? What happens when we turn to that enticingly bubbly — and often white — entertainment over and over again?

I discussed this with a friend recently. We had both been busy with typical college things (homework, midterms) and typical Berkeley things (protests, waiting in long lines). We had both been avoiding sadness.

“For me, it’s just like when I get home I want to mindlessly watch entertaining stuff,” she shared. I understood. Yet, entertainment and sadness are not strangers. In our entertainment, we learn profound lessons about human dignity, friendship and self-knowledge. These experiences are rooted in “real” stories, in the stories that challenge, uplift and even sadden us. Just as we cannot separate entertainment from its consequences, we cannot separate sadness from stories.

I was reminded of this when I finally sat down to watch “Moonlight.” When the young boy, Chiron, runs into the boarded-up house, it is a moment of profound sadness. He walks through the dark silently. He hesitates when the man hovers in the doorway. He does not appear to trust that the outside world, the world in which he stands apart from other boys and asks strangers not to take him home, is better than the empty house. Yet, the film does not present Chiron as a victim. None of the characters are victims of sadness. Instead, they simply are — hopeful, struggling, frustrated, sweet, flawed, joyous. They embody a truth: courage can be born from sadness, from struggle.

What is bound up in the labeling of something as merely sad? When we expel sadness from our entertainment, what stories are we dismissing? “Moonlight” became the first LGBT movie and the first movie with an all-black cast to win Best Picture. What other stories are waiting to be told, to be considered something more than simply sad?

When I was little, I had a string of unfortunate birthday parties. Despite the best attempts of my parents, each celebration ended with me in tears. My friends ditched me, other parents argued with my mom over the birthday décor, I even spent my eighth birthday in an ice skating rink’s telephone booth coordinating rides. Yet, these memories are associated with deep happiness for me. I remember the comfort of my mother, a thrilling ride on a Zamboni and the moments in which I formed some of my closest friendships. Happiness, I learned, did not have to be the absence of sadness.

“What other stories are waiting to be told, to be considered something more than simply sad?”

When the cast of “Moonlight” claimed its award Sunday, it reminded me of this formative lesson. It reminded me that in our political climate, and even in the stress of school, our entertainment should challenge us and introduce us to stories that haven’t been told before. After all, we all have stories living within us: stories that are both sad and uplifting, stories that are more than sadness, stories that deserve to be heard.

Contact Caitlyn Jordan at [email protected].