Moonlight tackles diversity in media

Photo from A24 Three phases · Told in three chapters, Moonlight tells the story of a black man struggling with his sexuality and identity while growing up in Miami. The film has been unanimously acclaimed by critics since its premiere.

Photo from A24
Three phases · Told in three chapters, Moonlight tells the story of a black man struggling with his sexuality and identity while growing up in Miami. The film has been unanimously acclaimed by critics since its premiere.

Asking the Hollywood powers for diverse representation in film is like your mom asking you to clean up your room when you’re a child. You know you should do it, but you don’t. When you finally clean up, it’s only until the last minute, like when your mom is throwing a dinner party and expecting a group of 20 “any minute now.”

In this case, I consider people who watch films — the diverse group of people that they are — as the collective “mom” in this situation. The “Hollywood powers” are, of course, the child, because it’s taken this long and this much begging to get the dirty laundry off the floor in order for a film like Moonlight to make its way onto the silver screen. And my gosh, it’s about time.

Moonlight premiered in New York and Los Angeles last week. However, it will premiere nationwide on Nov. 4 — a method used to generate and capitalize on buzz from New York and Los Angeles before releasing out into the proverbial wild. I had the chance to see Moonlight (and the Q&A that followed) at the Arclight Cinema Dome. It’s important to note that it was in the Dome — a screening room reserved for only the most blockbuster-y of films — because when I first bought my tickets, it was in a smaller theater in the adjacent building.

That was the more appropriate choice for the size and scale of the movie, considering it was an independent feature with almost zero recognizable names in the cast. But after the small showing sold out, I received an email from Arclight telling me they’d moved it to the dome because of an overwhelming demand. Let us not take that fact for granted, because when the screening day arrived, almost every seat in that massive 800-person theater was filled.

Directed by Barry Jenkins with a script adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a coming-of-age film about a young boy named Chiron who’s coming to terms with his sexuality while growing up in a rough neighborhood in Miami. Told in three acts (played by three different actors) we watch Chiron age before our very eyes as he struggles to define himself among school bullies, a drug-addicted mother and a culture which disapproves of
same-sex attraction.

So many scenes are rife with uncertainty — an uncertainty that plays as much within the characters as it does within the audience. As Chiron progresses through life, we feel how achingly at sea he feels through every step of his journey. The film is beautiful, understated, nuanced and roving. “Dream-like” is a word used often to describe it, but that word almost undermines the bold reality we are faced with: This is the story of a black gay man. But it’s also so much more than that.

In the Q&A that followed, a man stood up in the audience and told the panel that Moonlight did for him what no other movie has ever been able to do: depict a young gay man of color’s personal journey with his identity. This type of representation, he felt, he had never seen before.

When I was 9 years old, my mother moved our two-unit family from bright, loud Los Angeles to the quiet, remote countryside in Oregon. I felt removed, both literally and emotionally, and sought refuge in movies for entertainment, for excitement, for wisdom and strength. When you’re that young, you look to anything for guidance and clarity for what the future might hold. At that age, I stacked my hopes and dreams on whether Anne Hathaway would prove her worth in The Devil Wears Prada, whether Sandra Bullock could catch the bad guy and win over the Miss United States judges or whether Elle Woods would ultimately succeed at Harvard Law in Legally Blonde.

If they could do it — or, perhaps more importantly — if she, could do it, then I felt like maybe so could I. I had representation in film — there were girls that looked like me, at least enough, so that I could identify with them, believe in them, root for them, and by extension, root for myself. Movies, in no uncertain terms, saved me.

I hadn’t realized — despite writing this column for almost two years now — just how acutely important representation was until that man stood up in the audience and said what seeing Moonlight meant to him. He had grown up and he was without seeing himself on the screen or in the media that was being offered to him and he was without the chance to find answers about life.

And that is worse than my own botched metaphor about moms and messy rooms, because the characteristics at stake — personal identity, confidence, strength and self-acceptance — are what we build our lives on.

I am both relieved and excited that a film like Moonlight exists today. While it may be a belated first, it definitely will not and should not be the last.

Minnie Schedeen is a a senior majoring in cinema and media studies.  Her column, “Film Fatale,” runs on Wednesdays.