“Moonlight” Honours for Black gay drama

Oscar gold, first win for independent film studio

By Thomas L Blair 01 March 2017 copyright, updated 03 March 2017

Barry Jenkins, photo acknowledgement
Barry Jenkins, photo acknowledgement

The golden rays of the Oscar-winning Moonlight lit the way  as best screenplay director Barry Jenkins,  Muslim African American Mahershala  best supporting actor winner and British star Naomi Harris  mounted the  garlanded stage. Thereby, earning the  praise fellow actors and #OscarSoWhite campaigners for boosting diversity

Visibly moved, the mainly white Academy Awards audience listened intently as Jenkins confessed “Even in my dreams this could not be true. Nevertheless, clutching his gilded Oscar he said, “To hell with it, I’m done with dreams – because this is true”.

Somehow, Jenkins managed to convey what would become a recurring theme of the evening, as Black actors, writers, and filmmakers made history. He used his platform to give a chance to the “black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves”. This shout-out reflected his own growing up in Miami, where the film is set.

Moonlight’s attributes make it a first in cinematic history. It earned its plaudits with a complex film with non-commercial themes. Unusually, it has a Black majority cast and production team. It is a tale of a gay African American boy slowly coming to terms with his race, his sexuality and his background.

Many will hail the film as a thoughtful meditation on identity, family, friendship and love. Writer Terry McMillan tweeted  in #OscarSoBlack “Glad we were visible. Don’t beg for recognition. We earned it. And there’s more to come”.

Controversially, the theme provokes debate. Faith groups and anti-gay campaigners may condemn it as “deviant.” Nevertheless, Moonlight tells a story that is seldom recognised as a legitimate part of the Black experience.

In any case, adding a little more black on a white screen is only a small bandage over a gaping ulcer. “For many, Hollywood is getting closer to the truth. Not yet #OscarSoDiverse, but getting there”, said Richard Prince, editor of Journalisms.

However, the frisson of excitement that most commentators have failed to stress lies elsewhere

Barry Jenkins’ beautiful Moonlight is the first Oscar win for the new, independent studio A24. It “took a chance on this coming-of-age film.” A24 rides piggyback on the new deep-pocketed technology giants, Amazon and Netflix.

They are specialist providers streaming media and video-on-demand online and DVD by mail, In 2013, Netflix expanded into film and television production, as well as online distribution. They may become Hollywood’s new heavyweights, reports Matthew Garrahan in Movies and Shakers for the Financial Times, 17 Feb 2017.

Moonlight is just the edgy, provocative, character-driven piece they go for. A sharp contrast to the big, “prestige” pictures  that Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century Fox rely on to contend for Oscars.

However, art triumphs over commerce in Jenkins’ view. True to his own principles of social responsibility, Jenkins said the film is “For all you people out there who feel there is no mirror for you, that you feel your life is not reflected” and “we will not forget you”.

Significantly, the Black presence in film gains as Amazon and Netflix move into the space vacated by the major studios. The films we want to release, said Jason Rospel of Amazon”are visionary films by visionary directors”.  Moreover, what more opportunities will there be for a whole range of tales when Apple and Google enter the fray – to win?

Moonlight fits this model of the future, and certainly not the past. [Remember: the post-slavery Birth of a Nation, 1915, depicted Black men as ignorant , dangerous and potential rapists, and hailed the the Klu Klux Klan as the heroic white force].

The Black  visionaries of the future will gain from new info-tech money backing an innovative market of “divergent” stories, characters, communities, directors and production teams. This may advance the centuries-old struggle for cinematic verity. And, the impact will be felt beyond traditional Hollywood’s benign neglect into the freedomways of cyberspace.

Your comments are welcome on how to put Black creativity at the heart of the Amazon/Netflix streaming industries.

This is also a good opportunity to check out Barry Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy, which is streaming on Netflix.