Empathy, authenticity and resonance in ‘Moonlight’: why its Best Picture win transcends representation

Moonlight
David Bornfriend/Courtesy

On the Tuesday after the Oscars, “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. sat down with Trevor Noah and gave his take on this year’s Best Picture winner: “Peak Blackness.”

“Trevor,” he explained, “ ‘Peak Blackness’ is a rare, metaphysical anomaly that can only occur when an amalgam of black excellence comes together at the same societal intersection.” When pressed, he expounded, “It’s when a lotta dope black shit happen at the same time.”

David Bornfriend/Courtesy

David Bornfriend / Courtesy

In the realm of film, it certainly seems as though this year qualifies, with a diverse set of movies, actors and directors being nominated — and, more importantly, winning — among the spread of the Academy Awards. It almost feels as though, with #OscarsSoWhite on their tails and the entire country descending into bitter, polarizing divisions along racial, religious and economic lines, the members of the Academy felt a light bulb ding above their heads.

If taking home Best Picture were purely merit based, then “Moonlight” winning wouldn’t seem all that surprising. Barry Jenkins’ quiet, tender portrayal of young black boy Chiron — as he navigates poverty, masculinity, a drug-addicted mother and his own sexuality — currently holds a 99 MetaCritic score from 51 critical reviews. In fact, most critics placed Moonlight at the top of their “Best Of” lists for the year.

Its Oscar win is surprising though, because winning Best Picture is not purely merit based. Those very critics who praised the exquisite mastery of the story Jenkins tells still held the film as an impossible long shot to win Best Picture. Movies like “Moonlight” simply don’t win Best Picture.

Look at the recent winners of the award: “Birdman,” “Argo” and “The Artist” all celebrate the entertainment industry, a penchant repeated by this year’s heavy favorite “La La Land.” This year’s early contender “Birth of a Nation” and 2013’s winner “12 Years a Slave” remind us of Hollywood’s proclivity for extolling black stories explicitly concerning civil rights and slavery. The still-stinging snub of “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, despite the film’s near sweep of the rest of the awards season, reminds us that films focused on unashamed intimacy between LGBTQ+ characters don’t win Best Picture.

“Moonlight” is a movie about black lives, and black bodies, and black intimacy, without politicizing, without hypersexualizing, without reductionism or judgement.

Look at Jenkins’ budget: $1.5 million. Look at “La La Land,” at $30 million. “Moonlight” is, adjusted for inflation, the lowest-budgeted film ever to win Best Picture. It cost less than the price of a 30-second ad during the Oscars telecast. Yet nowhere does it feel low rent — the vivid colors and achingly beautiful imagery, guided by precise and affecting camerawork and editing, only make the film’s budget more impressive. Independent films have won Oscars, but for a film this small, which took this many risks stylistically and structurally, its win is altogether astonishing.

Look at Jenkins’ cast. Not only has it produced the first Muslim actor Oscar winner in Mahershala Ali, it’s also all black. The film’s intimacy is with Chiron, but also with the black community in Liberty City, a community that raised both director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” provides the basis for the film’s script. It’s a community that is intertwined in the DNA of the film, from its on-location shoot in the projects to the extras, who were actually local high schoolers from Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Jenkins’ alma mater. “Moonlight” is a movie about black lives, and black bodies, and black intimacy, without politicizing, without hypersexualizing, without reductionism or judgement. In short, it is a film ripe for calls of “reverse racism” from “Fox and Friends” that never received them because so few people actually saw it.

David Bornfriend / Courtesy

David Bornfriend / Courtesy

 “Moonlight” currently has the second-lowest domestic gross of any Best Picture winner, beating out only “The Hurt Locker.” It is a film that, upon its release, became critically important to the LGBTQ+ community, to black communities, to film critics and to film lovers. But niche critical support can’t win the coveted trophy, which is part of why indie film juggernaut Mark Duplass felt the need to pen an open letter to the Academy urging it to consider “Moonlight” for Best Picture. Ultimately, despite its critical support, the majority of the 32.9 million people who tuned into the Oscars Sunday night had not actually seen “Moonlight.”

And truly, that’s what’s important here. Not so much the obstacles that “Moonlight” overcame to win Best Picture, but what it means for all of us now that is has. A lot has been said about what this film means for representation, what it means for young black boys and for LGBTQ+ youth to see themselves represented in media — and not just media that is swept aside, but in the best picture of the year.

“Moonlight” goes beyond that. It is more than an outlet for underrepresented minorities to see themselves; it is an outlet for everyone else to see them too. Black and LGTBQ+ excellence and existence are facts, regardless of whether the Academy chooses to recognize them or not. But for the millions of people who haven’t seen “Moonlight,” the Academy has conferred onto it a seal that proclaims it essential watching, and that will make a difference.

It is more than an outlet for underrepresented minorities to see themselves; it is an outlet for everyone else to see them too.

If this year has shown us anything, it is that the divisions between us are widened and strengthened by hatreds that are founded on fear, of those who aren’t “like” us and whom we don’t understand. If “Moonlight” shows us anything, it is that a film can portray the humanity of drug addicts or of people who have been incarcerated with such empathy and such honesty that the lack of judgement we feel toward them while watching generates its own cognitive dissonance.

“Moonlight” is an incredible film when viewed through the critical lenses of character and story, of cinematography and editing, of vision and musical composition. But it is also an important film, the most important film of the year, and perhaps one of the most important films of the last decade because the empathy and connection created between the characters and the audience is authentic.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Kendrick Lamar broke down the moment he understood why his music, which for him is about feeling “locked in a box because of gang culture,” has connected with such a broad audience. Kendrick recounted a fan’s explanation: “ ‘I connect through your music not because I know about the gang culture; it’s the sense of wanting to be set free.’ ”

Courtesy / David Bornfriend

David Bornfriend / Courtesy

“Moonlight” works in much the same way. Efforts to pigeonhole it into the “universal story” box ultimately ring untrue, because it is not a universal story; it is an exacting, hyper-specific story that very, very few people can truly understand. I do not know what it is like to be black, and gay, and grow up in Liberty City. But thanks to Jenkins’ authenticity in his portrayal of that community and culture and his empathy toward human suffering and growth, I can feel a shared emotional experience with those characters. As Barry Jenkins related in a post-award interview, even abroad he heard a fan stand up and say, “I’m from rural Germany, and 20 minutes into this film, I didn’t see [actor] Alex Hibbert, I saw myself.”

“Moonlight” invites the audience to find common ground and shared experience with its story. I can’t fully comprehend Chiron’s struggle. But I do know depression, and I see that aspect of myself reflected in the haunted, dripping, post-ice-bath faces of actors Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. I know how it feels to be confused and bisexual and broken. I know how it feels to retreat into silence.

Watching “Moonlight” and feeling those resonances in it, I have to remind myself that Chiron is a character, the film a fiction. But I cringe to call it that. Something about “Moonlight” feels indelibly true, despite the fact that it is a constructed story. Part of that is the semi-autobiographical hints of both McCraney and Jenkins peppered throughout the film. But it’s more than that. Fiction often allows us to find truths and understandings that nonfiction cannot. Perhaps — hopefully — more people will watch this film as a result of its win, especially now that it is expanding to more than 1,500 theaters in its widest release yet. Hopefully, they also find something in it worth fighting for.

Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].