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 favourite 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 neighbourhood 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 colour 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.
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.
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 honours, 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 America’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.
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 26, 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 colour. The stories we tell each other — and who's doing the telling — matter now more than ever.
Moonlight is released in UK cinemas on 17th February.
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