How Moonlight Muted Me, and Gave Us A New Paradigm For Gay Black Men

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*I saw the Academy Award-winning Moonlight for the first time at the beginning of its initial run in theaters, last fall. I walked into a screening of the movie with every intention of reviewing it. I walked out having been profoundly moved, forever changed, and temporarily muted. I simply couldn’t find the words to describe the movie.

I’d not felt that way after seeing a film since Precious, another film with honest, gritty performances, flawed, human characters that commanded my attention, and a character arc that left me literally exhausted and speechless. I felt the same way after seeing Monster’s Ball and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Dreamgirls.

In all of those prior cases, the films went on to win Academy Awards, and I’d accurately predicted them. In the case of Monster’s Ball, I knew that if Halle Berry hadn’t gone on to win the Oscar for Best Actress, it would have been due to racism in the industry. Berry’s performance, particularly a critical scene during which her character is processing an unfathomable loss, earned that trophy.

Similarly, after watching Moonlight, I called Mahershala’s Oscar, the screenplay award, and the Oscar for Best Picture. I knew if Moonlight didn’t win on Oscar night, homophobia — not racism — would have been the primary culprit.

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Mahershala Ali as “Juan” in Moonlight

I decided against writing a review of Moonlight, even after one of my editors requested one, and initially I wasn’t sure why. At the time, I told myself that I’d been so moved by Moonlight that I couldn’t find the words to describe the film. That’s somewhat true, and to be honest, I’m still struggling with that. The movie, overall for me, is about acceptance, of ourselves and of others, as a young black man tries to come to terms with his own identity, place in the world, and sexual orientation.

One Moonlight scene in particular brought tears to my eyes, during which Ali’s character teaches the young Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert) how to swim, before he gives advice on self-acceptance that we all could use, independent of sexual orientation. I was reminded of my dad teaching me to swim decades ago, and our subsequent conflict regarding my own sexual orientation years later.

Moonlight swim

 

While Moonlight undoubtedly muted me, I dug a little deeper and realized that I’d not written an initial review due to my own internalized homophobia. As a bisexual black man, I was worried that my glowing endorsement of the film wouldn’t be taken seriously. Now, looking back to last fall, I’m not proud of that moment. In a sense, Moonlight — or my visceral reaction to it — steered me back in the closet — at least professionally — for a hot minute.

As Oscar night approached, I held on to my belief that Moonlight was the year’s Best Picture, even as the industry and many of my colleagues and friends rallied behind La La Land. When that film was mistakenly announced the Best Picture winner, my heart sank as I pondered my relative silence about the film. Then I, along with the rest of the audience, gasped as it was announced that Moonlight had in fact been voted Best Picture.

An independent film, made for $1.5 million, about gay black men, had been awarded an Oscar for Best Picture. That’s quite a journey from Brokeback Mountain being shut out of the Oscars a decade ago, from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, and from In Living Colors’ garish “Men Of Film” parody from the 90s.

Don’t get it twisted: there’s still a lot of work to do — but that’s quite a journey, and quite an accomplishment for the Moonlight team.

Curiously, even after the Oscars, most of the media coverage on the awards ceremony centered around the mistake made in the presentation of Best Picture, instead of on the brilliance of the Best Picture awardee. Maybe I was on to something about homophobia in Hollywood distancing people from the film. Amazingly, Moonlight is the first film with an all-black cast to be awarded Best Picture, Ali is the first Muslim to win an Oscar for acting, and Jenkins is only the fourth black director to earn an Oscar nomination for his work. It’s also one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture honorees in history.

Now, as I raise a glass to Moonlight’s cast and its director, Barry Jenkins, and as I download the film into my iMovie library, I prepare to revisit one of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen. I told you I’d been changed the first time I saw it. Why? Simply because I’d never seen a leading character that so closely resembled me, or the story of so many LGBT men of color told in such an honest, moving way. Both “Chiron” and “Kevin” look and act a heck of a lot more like me than a singing, dancing Ryan Gosling, or most other leading movie characters in Hollywood’s history.

I know Black History Month is over, but you don’t have to wait until next February to check Moonlight out. it’s just been released digitally as well as on Blu Ray and DVD. See this stunning film and this year’s Best Picture winner, and do me a favor: while you’re watching it, think of me, and every other African American LGBT man, like those in your family, church, or neighborhood. After seeing Moonlight, you may never see us the same way again.

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This blog was written by freelancer Michael P Coleman. Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP.

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