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Why 2017 needs more film and TV like ‘Moonlight’ and ‘San Junipero’

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JANUARY 13, 2017

We’re only a few days into 2017. Morale is low, and rightfully so. A week from today, we’ll have a president in office with a motley crew of folks behind him looking to set back LGBT rights with a brute force that’ll go far beyond a single tweet.

There’s incoming vice president Mike Pence, who’s probably most notorious for past statements that may have suggested an endorsement of shocking the gay away. And even beyond that, there’s folks like Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions in his cabinet, both of whom the Boston Globe kindly referred to as the “who’s who of LGBT opponents.”

It’s hard to be hopeful of what the future will hold, especially as a queer person. But it might be useful, productive even, to take comfort with what’s been shown on screens — big and small — to reflect a more hopeful tale, one driven by nostalgia and hope for a better future ahead.

“San Junipero,” the fourth episode of “Black Mirror’s” Netflix debut, and “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ Golden Globe-winning (!!!) coming-of-age tale, both brought to life two folks deeply, irreconcilably in love in the face of opposition. That, on its own, is worth a lot. It’s been said too many times before, but representation matters. To exist and to love as a queer person is valuable in spaces where your existence isn’t guaranteed.

“San Junipero” hinges on a peculiar virtual reality world for elderly folks. It sets the scene for Kelly (the impossibly charismatic Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) to fall in love in two different locations and in two different levels of consciousness. Yorkie, we find out after the San Junipero dreamscape sequence, has been stuck in a coma for decades — the aftermath of a car accident. After she comes out to her disapproving parents, she drives out, furious, before careening off the road.

But they exist in a world of digital pleasure bordering on hedonism. The episode doesn’t end with the two. It closes off with a gargantuan, fictional data center. They’re together, but their love for each other exists only in gigabytes and big data. It’s almost reassuring to watch the two, young and old at once, their love physical but unfettered by the bounds of the real world.

“Moonlight” exists in the inverse, where the crushing weight of reality sets in with every motion. Told in three parts, Chiron’s (Trevante Rhodes) coming-of-age is marooned by the constraints of his childhood and adolescence in Florida. At one point in the first third, he asks Juan (Mahershala Ali) if he’s a faggot. His lover, the slick, moony-eyed Kevin (André Holland) is complicit with attacking Chiron on school grounds mere hours after Chiron’s first queer sexual encounter as a tender teen. The stigma of his sexuality lingers into adulthood, until the very end of the film, where a vulnerable embrace between the two isn’t enough to reconcile years of built-up pain, but suffices for that moment.

The two share a few features. They both tell stories of queer relationships, they’re both critical darlings. But more importantly, they upend traditions of storytelling that have become familiar and flat-out boring. Unlike plenty of critically-acclaimed media with queer characters, the characters in “Moonlight” and “San Junipero” don’t end tragically. Unlike “Brokeback Mountain” or “Mysterious Skin” in the early aughts or even the disastrous third season of “The 100” earlier this year, queer characters can exist without their impending death. The characters in “Moonlight” and “Black Mirror” can be together, even under the most fraught circumstances. It’s a bold and powerful move. (It’s worth mentioning, too, that both couples feature Black queer folks without resorting to tokenism. Try telling that to Roland Emmerich, “Stonewall” director, who somehow managed to shift the history of a Black trans woman in favor of a white guy.)

But for stories that are so revolutionary, “Moonlight” and “San Junipero” are told through the lens of nostalgia. When the characters in both stories really get to be in love, the scenes take place where plenty of lovers before them have gone before. Folks have fallen in love in diners, and maybe faked an orgasm or two along the way. Nightclubs are breeding grounds for love — Usher wrote a whole song about it, after all. It’s kind of perfect that these budding romances are set where every other romance, it seems, takes place.

The soundtracks are crucial for this world-building. Chiron and Kevin’s pivotal reunion in the last third of “Moonlight” is soundtracked by a jukebox blaring Barbara Lewis’ aching “Hello Stranger.” There’s an old-time charm in the scene, as if they’re transported back to a utopian version of 1963 for that second, where two queer Black men can just enjoy each other’s company. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” bookends the “Black Mirror” episode, a perfect, corny motif that’s clever and emotive, their romance as divine and artificial as the synthesizers that chug along in Carlisle’s most famous hit.  More so than the arcade machines or Kelly’s glittery gear, the songs exist as a hallmark of youthful memory. It’s a world crafted for the sake of “immersive nostalgia therapy,” one that the characters get to build for themselves.

“Moonlight” and “San Junipero” construct the world out of bits and pieces of the past, remnants of a history that should have been theirs. They’re not side characters in some poorly-depicted revisionist history. They’re front and center.

It might be worthwhile to note that “Black Mirror” showrunner Charlie Brooker, ever the technological pessimist, looks backward for the single moment in the show that doesn’t end with a bleak glimpse into the future. The one story he tells with a happy ending, he had to tell in what he described in an interview with the Guardian as a “heightened, movie-fied version of 1987.”

That’s the thing about nostalgia — it’s never about turning back time. It’s not documentary; it’s wish fulfillment.

People who wish for the past can gloss over details as they see fit. Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” with every CinemaScope musical number, stumps for jazz (and cinema) to be treated with the same reverence as it was in the ‘50s. This time, Ryan Gosling is part of the film’s internal movement to save jazz. If that means rewriting the past to fit another white guy into the picture of jazz’s illustrious, celebrated history, then so be it, John Legend be damned.

For queer people, nostalgia takes on an added value. Nostalgia is about survival. It’s about making sure that a memory can be preserved so the future never has to be like the past. Nostalgia exists so that the past can be revised and expanded to fill in the missing gaps where we were excluded.

We’re less than two weeks away now before we bear witness to history potentially spiralling backwards into the most closed-off, harmful iteration of itself. Inclusivity was — is — never a guarantee. We’ve elected a president so eager to backtrack and undo years of social and political progress, so willing to obstruct civil rights in the face of appeasing a collective mass that never had to question their identity for the sake of survival.

The feeling of fear lingers for both Yorkie and Chiron. It’s prescient, a fear that looms even in the face of no apparent danger. Yorkie winces at a minor car accident, one that recalls the night of her coming out. Chiron can only really be held in the quiet of Kevin’s bedroom. That both “Moonlight” and “San Junipero” are set in the same settings as the Orlando nightclub attack is a devastating reminder of this fear.

Queer nostalgia is powerful, then, because so much of it is rooted in a time that we wanted to exist. We can appropriate, recreate, remold based on the materials that formed the basis of every other story that’s come into the mainstream.

In these stories, Chiron’s not in danger anymore. Neither is Yorkie.

The existence of LGBT people throughout history was questioned and erased, and still continues to be. What sets “Moonlight” and “San Junipero” apart is that this nostalgia is allowed to exist. We get to tell these same old stories over again, on our own terms. And even if it is in fiction, it’s a valuable first step. Representation can only go so far, but getting to see stories that reimagine the political, physical — even the corporeal — bounds of love is something that we’ll need to have in order to brace for the years ahead.

Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected]. Tweet him at @joshuaboat.

JANUARY 12, 2017

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