Why Moonlight Is The Perfect Testament To Obama's Legacy

Illustrated by Ariel Davis.
Days after watching Barack and Michelle Obama wave their final goodbyes as president and first lady, I went to see Moonlight for a second time. Following the wave of emotions that came with watching Trump on Inauguration Day, and taking to the streets for the Women’s March the next, I needed a balm. When I first saw the movie last fall, I’d been one of a handful in the audience. As I filed in to see the Golden Globe winner for Best Drama again, the theater was completely packed — and my eyes were brimming before the previews even began. I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, January was an emotional shitshow.

Moonlight
punched me in the gut the first time around, because I’d never seen anything close to my own coming-of-age on screen before. I'm so accustomed to not seeing myself in the media I consume, I never really questioned the absence — growing up, I can't remember watching any characters who came anywhere close to mirroring my experience. It was just a fact of life as a second-generation immigrant living in a country where heterosexual, white experience is the default context in which stories are told. I was never one to turn down a viewing party for Dawson's Creek or Clueless, and owe much of my personality to Aaron Spelling, but unlike my mostly white female friends in grade school, I didn't see anyone like me reflected in the media we consumed. I always held even my favorite characters at a distance; not only was their world make-believe, they were nothing like me.

I may not have been born into a family or neighborhood like Chiron’s, but his journey — running from ridicule into the arms of a mentor, and eventually leaving the whole town behind — traces a path that so many young queer people, including myself, have followed. The color of his skin and the details of his circumstance, living with a drug addicted mother in inner city Miami, are long overdue firsts in popular narratives about LGBT characters on screen, who are so often white, privileged, and neatly wrapped in “they’re just like us” packaging.
Photo: David Bornfriend/A24/REX/Shutterstock.
Trevante Rhodes and André Holland in "Moonlight"
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Seeing the movie again after the election, in the midst of its daily, disheartening fallout, I felt a renewed sense of hope — that increasingly slippery life raft Obama first held out to galvanized voters in 2008. While every breaking headline seems a fresh reason to chuck our phones out a window, and the mood in the street is one of defiant resistance, that afternoon in the dark, Moonlight flooded me with faith. Here is the story of a life so often erased from the popular conscience, marginalized for being poor, Black, and queer. One of the many lives we’ve been forced to insist matter — in our culture wars, and in very real battles being waged against bullies in schools, in police uniform, and now, in the Oval Office.

We’re in the midst of an upswing, one that will only continue with the momentum generated by Obama’s White House, and Hollywood’s clear opposition to his successor.

For Moonlight to be nominated for Best Picture — and have a clear shot at winning — feels very close to a glass ceiling being broken. Writer-director Barry Jenkins and story creator Tarell Alvin McCraney gave us a movie that's the first of its kind in offering an unflinching, poetic portrait of a queer person of color coming of age. Ostracized LGBT kids often turn to movies and TV for solace — whether gay men idolizing Hollywood icons like Judy Garland or teenagers latching onto Joss Whedon’s ass-kicking Willow. As moving as Moonlight and its landmark success are to me, I can only imagine what it means for a queer boy of 12, 18, or even 25 to tune in on Oscar night and root for a movie about the pain of growing up an outsider, and the pillars of hope and acceptance that keep us above water.

Just as Hollywood offers escape — from life’s major hardships, or just this morning’s headlines — the stories it chooses to tell, and those it showers with honors, have the unique power to open minds and sow empathy in viewers for people whose experiences might be worlds away from their own. The past year brought us small screen hits like Insecure, Atlanta, and Master of None and acclaimed movies like Fences, Dope, Lion, and more. These titles still represent just a fraction of what’s on offer, and the entertainment industry has a long way to go in representing the audience that pays its bills. But clearly, I’m not alone in seeking a particular kind of refuge from current events in the dark of the multiplex. Hidden Figures continues to top the box office over six weeks after its release; and it has a good shot at nabbing an Oscar or two along with Moonlight and Fences.

The dominance of movies showcasing Black experience this awards season is bittersweet, to say the least. Just as our country’s first-ever Black first family is receding in the rearview mirror, we’re looking back at a year that brought us diverse representations like we’ve never seen before — not to mention facing a very uncertain future. But there’s reason to believe we’re in the midst an upswing, one that will only continue with the momentum generated by Obama’s White House, and Hollywood’s clear opposition to his successor.

The movie is one heartening sign that Obama's signature hope for an all-inclusive body politic will outlast his administration.

In the final lines of his farewell address, Obama emphasized "a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written.” For a long time, many of us never thought that stories truly reflecting our experiences would ever be told. But with his departing words, Obama reminded us — “Yes we can. Yes we did.”

The former president’s unique commitment to documenting and sharing a diverse range of untold stories continues with the Obama Foundation, which announced a partnership with StoryCorps last month. StoryCorps’ stated mission “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order...to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters,” could have easily come from one of the myriad acceptance speeches on the awards circuit this season, with stars offering their take on the current climate and Hollywood’s place in it.

Regardless of how many Oscars Moonlight collects on February 25, it's opening viewers’ eyes to a human experience many may never have considered before, and allowing others to see some part of their own lives up on screen for the first time. In that way, the movie is one heartening sign that Obama's signature hope for an all-inclusive body politic will outlast his administration, and the one so swiftly trying to undo his legacy.

So after the next protest and the next, and another postcard or phone call or incensed tweet to my reps, I won't feel like a lazy citizen for binge-watching Fresh off the Boat or ponying up for a reclining seat at the latest release from a rising auteur of color. The stories we tell each other — and who's doing the telling — matter now more than ever.

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