Something that has actually been lost in the entire Best Picture envelope mix-up over the past two days is a pretty monumental fact about this year’s winner, “Moonlight.” Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed drama is the first gay movie to ever win Best Picture. That’s, um, sort of a big deal.
Yes, “Moonlight” is many things but it’s profoundly a gay movie. Just like “Carol,” “Milk,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “Brokeback Mountain” are. And it’s the first one to ever win. 1970’s winner, “Midnight Cowboy,” had gay elements to it, but it wasn’t truly a gay film. “Moonlight” absolutely is.
I was speaking to a colleague Tuesday night and he was clearly frustrated by the fact that “Moonlight” as a gay film was almost being ignored in the pop culture lexicon at this exact moment (and perhaps during its entire release). At first I thought he was exaggerating but the more I thought about it, I realized how right he was. It really hasn’t been discussed enough.
Inspired by events in playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s life, the Miami-set “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron who, when we first meet him as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), realizes he’s different from the other boys he plays with. When he asks Juan (Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer who becomes an eventual father figure to him, “Am I a faggot?” Juan lets him know that word is used to make gay people feel bad, and while he may be gay, never to let anyone call him that.
As a teenager, Chrion (now played by Ashton Sanders) is initially blind to the realization the one classmate who is nice to him, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), is also hiding a secret. With a kiss they have a beautiful moment together on the beach under the moonlight (an iconic image) and Chiron goes home thinking he’s at least found someone who understands his struggle. That joy is short lived, however, when another classmate provokes Kevin into punching Chiron to prove his manhood. And both boys’ lives go down dramatically different paths.
Now an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is deep into the closet and a drug dealer in Atlanta. When he receives a call from Kevin (Andre Holland) apologizing for what happened years ago, it’s as though he’s awoken from a long slumber. He ends up returning to Florida to find Kevin and they have a reunion that unfolds somewhat unexpectedly.
This is a story about a gay man finding himself, even if life took him off course to do so. And for some reason it was glossed over by the mainstream media’s Oscar coverage even before the ceremony took place. Is it discomfort? Is it because the marketing doesn’t really allude to it and most members of the press actually haven’t seen the movie? Is it because besides McCarney everyone else associated with the picture is (presumably) straight? Is it because the press doesn’t want to “generalize” the film, a movie that does touch on other socio-economic and cultural issues? Possibly, but it all seems slightly odd since Chiron’s sexuality is absolutely the main storyline of the movie. Perhaps the general entertainment press hasn’t come as far as the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That’s sort of ironic considering how many of them are actually gay themselves.
Let’s be clear though. As a gay man this is not an attempt by myself or my friends or the gay community to “own” the movie. The movie is as universal as Jenkins has said it is. People around the world can relate to feeling different, alone, and having to hide who they are to survive. But by pushing the label to the side, it’s a subliminal message to other Chirons and Kevins out there growing up that maybe it’s still not 100% right to proclaim your truth. So, let’s put that to rest, shall we? Can we be out and proud for “Moonlight”? For today, tomorrow and cinematic history there is a gay movie called “Moonlight” and it won Best Picture.
No matter who tries to ignore that fact.