Moonlight Changes Everything
How the indie masterpiece defied the odds and became an artistic and cultural milestone
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Two teen friends, both guys, sit together on a late, breezy night on a Miami beach, the Atlantic crashing onto the shore in front of them. One of the friends is popular at school, chasing girls, hanging with other guys. The other friend is quiet, timid, trying to find his way into adulthood while also searching for his self-identity. The two couldn’t be more opposite of each other, yet something draws them together on this starry night.
The two take in the swift, cool breeze drifting over their skin, to which the popular friend says, “Makes you wanna cry, so good.” The shy friend turns his head and asks him, “You ever cry?” “Nah. You cry?” “I cry so much I think one day I’m gone just turn into drops.”
A moment of silence louder than anything occurs between them, trying to understand each other. They gaze at each other and begin to lean in, until they find themselves kissing, time itself coming to a stop.
This is all happening on a movie screen, as I sit late at night watching the moment unfold in a dark theater. There are only a couple of other people in the theater, yet at this moment, I’m totally unaware of their existence, completely immersed within the story before me. This story is Moonlight, a chronicle of the life of Chiron, a young, black, gay man.
As a white and straight male, this is a type of story that I’m not used to being told. I’m, unfortunately, used to seeing films with few strong, black actors and actresses, little to no gay characters, few women protagonists, and straightforward boy gets girl storylines. That’s what most of the us are used to seeing – and it’s what we’re getting sick of.
That exhaustion was finally expressed in a monumental fashion at this year’s Academy Awards.
On that night of Feb. 26, the winner of the final award, Best Picture, was announced as La La Land. But, as the the cast and crew gathered on stage to accept their Oscars, celebrate, and give their speeches, a radical mistake began to surface its way on stage. In a frenzy, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz scrambled his way to the microphone. “No, there’s been a mistake,” said Horowitz, “Moonlight – you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke, Moonlight has won Best Picture.” He then snatched the winner’s card and, as if it was a fulfilled prophecy of old, held it up to the audience like the Statue of Liberty.
In the moments that followed, not a single person could understand what was happening. The only thing understood was that underdog Moonlight, which ironically and almost symbolically stumbled its way to the night’s biggest prize, just overcame all odds and made cultural and societal history. An independent film made for only 1.5 million dollars about a gay, black man just won Best Picture.
But, even despite people being fed up with the same, innumerable humdrum movies, how did it all come to be?
For months, La La Land was the single frontrunner for Best Picture. The L.A.-set musical was a fresh burst of light and color that appealed to the public and critics alike. But, as 2016 continued further into the year, the whole world turned its attention from movies and stories of escapism towards reality. As the U.S. presidential election took shape and one of the most controversial candidates in American politics was nearing his way into office, division festered over people.
The brutal election left the masses drained, tired of the same old politics, same old fighting, same old left-right, black-white division – tired of the ordinary. We wanted to see something different, something we could connect to, something that actually felt real and human.
Sure enough, along came a meek, little passion project called Moonlight, the anomaly that we all needed but just didn’t know it. Right from the get-go, the film started turning heads. On its opening weekend, the film earned one of the highest per-theater averages of all-time at 414,740 dollars, playing in only four theaters in the entire United States.
At a time when so many people were and still are divided, Moonlight provided the opportunity to put aside their differences and immerse themselves within the story of Chiron. And people responded to that. What is the last film you can think of that had a black, gay character as its protagonist?
But even so, the true beauty of Moonlight is that despite the specificity of its setting and characters, the film doesn’t fall under one label or category. It isn’t a black movie. It isn’t a queer movie. It’s a story about finding ourselves and making our lives better, no matter where we come from or what our circumstances may be.
The entire point of storytelling is that we are able to find and see ourselves within the characters, whether they’re fictional or nonfictional, male or female, straight or gay, black or white, Muslim or Jewish, young or old.
And that’s why the film became the most unprecedented success of the year. In a world and at a time when society is obsessed with finding the differences between each other, Moonlight had the audacity to stand up and be different – to show that no matter who we are or what we believe, we have the ability to change lives, we can all love, and, in the end, we are all human.
As I sat in that theater on that one late night and saw two black males kiss each other, I saw myself up there. I could see myself in Chiron, the same teenage kid trying to find his true self. I truly believe that we can all find ourselves in Chiron and all characters that make up these stories, looking for ourselves and each other in the expanse of night and sea that is called life.