By Josiah Wampfler
Moonlight is a masterpiece. It is a film about subject matter that is (unfortunately) quite unique in the current film landscape. It is a beautifully crafted film with music, cinematography, editing and performances that push the medium forward. And it also shares an interesting connection to Casablanca in that both are based on unproduced stage plays (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue for Moonlight and Everybody Comes to Rick’s for Casablanca). Just like Casablanca has for years, Moonlight is a film that will inspire the next generation of filmmakers – and likely a much more diverse set of filmmakers at that. Plus, Casablanca was also considered the underdog going into Oscars night when it ended up winning both Best Director and Picture. Moonlight should do the same, not because of any comparison to the other films, but because it is the obvious choice. You only get a masterpiece like Moonlight maybe a couple times a decade. Casablanca was one of those films. Now is the time to give Moonlight the same recognition.
Many have already written “Why Moonlight Should Win Best Picture” articles. My personal hero, Mark Duplass, wrote a beautiful piece saying, “The film is important because it is a beautiful, sweet, open love letter to the core human values that connect us all.” He also wrote that it was the type of film he has been trying to make his entire life, a sentiment I share with him as Moonlight has personally inspired me in my pursuit of filmmaking.
Moonlight is a film that features almost an entirely black cast. Mahershala Ali, who plays Juan in the film, is also Muslim. And it is a film that tackles issues such as drug addiction, poverty and sexual identity in such empathetic and nuanced ways. This is not a film that we would normally see at the Oscars. In fact, it is a film that never usually would have been made at all. But, it was, and now it will be in front of millions of viewers because of its nominations and the profound importance of that should not be missed.
It is no secret that we currently have an administration in the White House that is scaring communities of color, Muslims and the LGBTQ community with its actions and words. Because of the rhetoric coming out of the oval office, the very existence of many of these people has become political. We have political debates over these labels and categories of human beings happening right now and Moonlight sits in a very interesting place among it all.
The one scene in Moonlight that has stuck with me months after first seeing it is the moment when our main character, the youngest Chiron (Alex Hibbard), asks his surrogate guardians, Juan and Teresa (Janelle Monae) what a “faggot” is. Juan’s response is not only something I’ve never seen from a drug dealer character in a film, it is profoundly empathetic and true. Juan simply states that a “faggot is something used to make gay people feel bad.”
What a simple, beautiful statement to a young boy struggling to figure out why people are screaming this word at him. And when Chiron asks Juan how he will know if he is gay, Juan says, “You don’t have to know right now, you feel me?”
With this one statement, Juan says so much. These labels that we put on people – gay, transgender, queer, faggot, Muslim, etc. – are not the essence of who people actually are. “You don’t have to know if you are gay right now,” says, to me, that these things are personal. No matter what the world says, these are private things. Whether that be your sexual identity, your religion, your gender or even your race, these things do not define you and what you do with these concepts is your private decision to make.
You don’t have to know if you are gay, because why should it matter to anyone else? It is your identity. No matter what the Mike Pence’s of the world want to say about gay or transgender people, their identity is a private matter and, in short, it is none of their god damn business. No matter what the Donald Trump’s of the world want to say about the Islamic faith, millions of Muslims around the world have made a private choice to follow the tenets of Islam peacefully. Their faith is their own and it is none of Trump’s damn business.
Moonlight is a film that is about identity and that is what I find so universal about it. Even if you are not gay, black, poor or have not experienced anything like the events contained within the film, the message of finding one’s identity is something I think we can all connect with. And as we sit with these characters that may be far different from ourselves and watch them as they chase their identity – something we all are also trying to do – we can empathize with them, we can feel their struggles and we can come to know the things that actually do bring us together as human beings. All of this other stuff, the labels we attach to people and the divisions they cause, mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. What means something is connecting to the humanity of others.
This is why Moonlight should win Best Picture. It is not only a technically impressive film, but an emotionally impressive one as well. It should win because it is masterpiece, it should win because of the importance of a win, and, most of all, Moonlight should win best picture because it brings the best out of us as viewers as we cry, love, smile and hurt with other human beings that may be far different from us. That is the power of cinema and it is what makes Moonlight such a powerful and deserving film.