It wasn’t as though I anticipated anything shy of a masterpiece, and yet the power of Moonlight entirely eclipsed my expectations. Queer people such as myself tend to get really hyped at the rare promise of seeing a member (or members) of our tribe represented on screen, and any narrative that ventures beyond the ivory tower of wealth and whiteness appeals to the social activist within me, so I knew that the film I was about to see would at the very least be worth my time and the money my date had paid for us to see it (I bought the popcorn and the sour patch kids, so we’re even. Also, the dentist hates us).
The film, called “the black Boyhood” rather callously by some, follows the life of a young black man growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami. Without a father present, Chiron, the lead character, finds a male role model in a big-hearted man who happens to also be a drug dealer, one of many characters in this film who challenges the audience’s perception of life “in the hood.” As he grows up around drugs, violence, and toxic masculinity, Chiron discovers that he’s gay, and the audience then gets to watch him simultaneously navigate his tender queerness and his hardened masculinity with a nuance and a divine, patient empathy that is so rarely captured in film. The tangible sincerity and love in Moonlight is what sets it apart as a work of art from the other films that were in this year’s Oscar’s pool.
Aside from its aesthetic mastery, Moonlight stunned audiences around the world with its message. This was the first film that I’d ever seen represent masculinity with such creativity and squishiness, as though the creative team had sculpted it out of clay. The film was at once a bleak, realist depiction of rigid masculinity and gender roles in underrepresented communities, and a highly imaginative, soulful, and hopeful image of what masculinity could be if we saved it from itself. Moonlight stands in stark contrast to another Oscar nominated film, Manchester by the Sea, which also deals with images and themes of masculinity, but in an entirely straightforward way. Instead of simply recreating mediocre or even violent masculinity from our daily lives with which we are all familiar, Moonlight offers a different path to young boys for whom the current masculinity narrative does not fit.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Moonlight helped me appreciate that masculinity is not a monolith. There is white masculinity, and there is black masculinity, and there are other forms of masculinity of color. Each one has its own set of cultural expectations heaped upon it, and each one should be assessed separately before they are assessed as one. Because I never thought to distinguish by these varying degrees of privilege and suffering, my feminism subconsciously saw all masculinity as white masculinity, and therefore judged black and white men from the same place of frustration or even disgust, when appropriate. Moonlight helped me see that this isn’t right; that black men who suffer under the thumb of oppression have expressions of masculinity that are separate from those of white men, and it is irresponsible and unfair to critique all masculinity from the same snowy white perch.
While the film was undoubtedly made to speak to communities of color that are in dire need of more and better representation in film (and in media more generally), simultaneously, Moonlight sends a subtle message to white feminists like myself who have never before been encouraged or who have never taken it upon themselves to see and appreciate black masculinity in its own light. This is not to say that we shouldn’t continue to work toward centering intersectional femininity in narrative works--shout out to the many queens of Hidden Figures--but that part of the journey toward gender and racial harmony is recognizing that there are marginalized groups even within masculinity that require attention and compassion.
As we enter into Women's History Month, *throws confetti and obnoxiously blows kazoo*, Moonlight requires us to acknowledge how a more flexible masculinity would benefit people of all genders, and how race, sexuality, and issues of gender expression and inequality are inextricably linked. Any and all feminists must see this film; must witness the ways that a breakdown of toxic masculinity--central to feminist advocacy--can save the lives of and expose the beauty, bravery, and humanity in men of all backgrounds.
Works of art such as this that are meant to heal one wounded community can and do end up strengthening other communities around it, which is just one of many reasons why Moonlight is so incredibly beyond deserving of the Oscar for Best Picture. (Sorry, La La Land--time to join the ranks of Adele Dazeem).