Even prior to receiving the highest honor of Sunday evening’s ceremony, Moonlight acquired abundant acclaim. The film, while praised for its narrative of a black gay male, encompasses a duality that warrants its acceptance by the The Academy.
On the surface, Moonlight tells the story of “Little” a young black man born into less than favorable circumstances in Miami. He’s small and not as brute as the boys his age. His mother, Paula, is young and addicted to drugs. Her priorities are in disarray and not capable of giving her child the love and nurture he needs to be a confident member of the harsh world that encompasses him. While dodging a beating one afternoon, Little meets Juan, a local drug dealer. Juan, played by the masterful Mahershala Ali, becomes a father figure for Juan. He teaches him pride and encompasses the diasporic African. Thus, Juan not only makes Little’s world bigger but widens the black diaspora, silently ensuring Little that there is a place for him in the world. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, (Janelle Monae) becomes a maternal figure for Little throughout his life—affording him shelter, money and the overt love missing from the relationship with his mother. By the middle of the movie, the silent and scared black child that stole our hearts in the beginning of the film blossoms to a man not afraid to stand up for himself. His new found courage awards him a place in the juvenile delinquent center and ultimately “Little” becomes “Black”—a drug dealer in a town outside of Atlanta.
Thus, while acclaimed for affording the black gay collective a voice, in actuality, the film depicts the evolution of a drug dealer. The same sex romance is therefore a backdrop, or prop in a larger, more familiar narrative of black men. The same sex romance romanticizes systemic oppression, depicting same sex attraction as a side effect of black discordance. In attaching labels like “woman,” “gay,” “immigrant,” “educated,” etc, to the black body the western world attains the necessary positioning to divide and conquer the black psyche and ultimately black portrayal. With regard to Moonlight, the same sex romance becomes the “different” factor needed to veil Hollywood’s telling of the same old story.
Nevertheless, the film succeeds in depicting multiple sides to black love. The bond Juan and Little share, the bond Little develops with Teresa, the secret love Little and Kevin share, and even the complex love Little shares with his mom. The cinematography is great. The acting is great. The writing is great. However none of these factors function to warrant Moonlight’s praise. It is the unflattering portrait of blacks that affords Moonlight the pseudo honor of Best Picture by the Oscar Academy.
In processing this truth, it becomes hard to believe that I once enjoyed the Oscars. However, I only liked it because I did not understand it. The Oscar’s, named after a white woman’s uncle, exists to award images that aid in affording white supremacy its stagnancy. Thus, The Academy does not exist to award “greatness.” The Academy exists to define greatness to the western world. To achieve this greatness, as a black writer, producer, actor or director in America is to aid in denigrating the black collective.
Moonlight, carries this torch, depicting cyclical disenfranchisement as an inevitable and impenetrable fate for black males. Is cyclical disenfranchisement a black truth? Yes. However, this image remains attached to the black collective and black communities. Thus, to depict this common image in a way that does not warrant contemplation, does nothing to advance black presence on the big screen. The film does function to humanize the black drug dealer. However, a black drug dealer is already humanized as “drug dealer” is only one role this individual plays in the black community. Drug dealers are sons, fathers, uncles, friends, classmates, and in Moonlight’s case—mentors. The effort to humanize the drug dealer, becomes complicated in the film’s revelation that Juan sells drugs to Little’s mother Paula. This complicated dynamic illustrates drug dealers as tools of white supremacy in their implementation of poison into the black communities. Drug sales induce a disfunctionality that deems black bodies crabs attempting to emerge from a closed jar.
Mahershala Ali’s victory for his role as Juan in Moonlight, functions similar to Denzel’s 2002 victory for Training Day. Both awards go to deserving actors but undeserving roles. Namely, both Ali and Washington’s talent becomes reduced by roles designed to resurrect caricatured images of black men. Interestingly, Denzel was nominated this year for his brilliant portrayal of Troy in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. While raunchy and unfaithful, Troy’s characters exists as a means to unravel the thoughts and actions of the black male. Viewers see Troy doing and saying a number of questionable things, but Wilson’s brilliance depicts Troy as both an entertaining and enlightening character. Washington did not win for this role, because it challenges how the westwen world compartmentalizes black men. If Washington did win, the western world might be tempted to understand, rather than judge and label the black man’s plight.
While Moonlight, garnered the majority of cinematic veneration in 2016, it was hardly the sole or most remarkable black film of 2016. The most prominent films of 2016 were Birth of a Nation, 13th, and I Am Not Your Negro. Despite 13th and I am Not Your Negro being documentaries, all these films succeed in bringing black truth to the forefront of western culture. Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion, challenging the common stereotype of the docile slave and the cowardly black male. 13th unveils the truth of the western prison system and black “criminality.” Finally, I Am Not Your Negro resurrects writer James Baldwin from his grave to render past words as present truths. Commonly these films depict the black collective as intellectual, insightful and innovative. Birth of a Nation, 13th and I Am Not Your Negro undo the caricatured imaging of black bodies and replace these images with a factual depiction of white evil. Furthermore, 2016 was a great year for black film. Yet, none of this greatness garnered Oscar recognition. This is not a bad thing, but proves demonstrative to the fact that black greatness exists outside white recognition.
Hattie McDaniel’s award-winning portrayal as Mammy in Gone With the Wind in (1939) betrayed The Academy as designed to reduce blacks to caricatured images. Ever since then, the Academy has remained committed to awarding black bodies who prove western fiction as fact.
Thus, I do not fault The Academy for not awarding the black excellence that presented itself in 2016. Said behavior is a predictable means to ensure that white supremacy survives. Films like Moonlight exist to entertain whites with a melodic portrayal of “black problems.” Even the film’s absence of white people, affords its white audience a level of comfort in their disassociation to the problems presented in the film. Thus, Little’s poverty becomes result of his mother’s lack of ambition and not the systemic oppression that stifles black economics. Even Juan’s drug dealing appears a selected hustle and not a means to escape the very dynamic that plagues Little.
Furthermore, while the Academy and most of the western world chooses to focus on Moonlight, I’ll focus on the black sky in the background. For it is this black sky that allows the moon and stars to shine—not the other way around…