'Moonlight' is the first LGBTQ-themed film to win best picture. Here's why that matters.
On Sunday night, Moonlight, a story about a poor, queer black boy, triumphed at the Oscars and took home best picture. It was almost too good to be true. Where films like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right failed to make it to the top of best picture pack, Moonlight succeeded in becoming the first LGBTQ-themed film to nab the Academy's top prize.
Whether or not Moonlight took home that trophy Sunday night, it would've been a standout film with deep personal, political and cultural resonance. But its win elevates the film to the level of cultural artifact. People will be able to tell from this win what mattered to people in 2016. And this year, black queer lives mattered.
When I was in my early teens and reconciling my gay identity, I remember straining to find media that reflected who I was and settling on late-night showings of Queer as Folk, reality fare like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or cartoonish sitcoms like Will & Grace. Important as they were to my development, they were also saturated with whiteness.
Where mainstream LGBTQ media has offered mostly white representation before, with notable exceptions like Noah's Arc, Moonlight centers on both unapologetic queerness and blackness. It treats its queer, black and Latino characters — Mahershala Ali's Juan is probably Afro-Cuban — with dignity and respect.
In a world that is still striving to understand intersectionality, Moonlight doesn't compartmentalize Chiron's blackness and his queerness. It allows him, and other characters, to be radically fully-realized, whole people. And when you create psychologically complex characters full of agency, it allows us to feel that we can be the same.
For queer black kids, Moonlight also offers a blueprint for many challenges that they will face. Chiron's emotional and physical cocooning, eventually confronted by Kevin's healing touch, teaches us about the power of intimacy in facing trauma. With Teresa and Juan, Moonlight teaches us about the importance of seeking out support both within our communities and outside our nuclear families. When Chiron spends time in prison, the film models the world's cruelty and inhumanity.
Moonlight's director Barry Jenkins translated Moonlight's message to the world on Sunday night very succinctly during his best adapted screenplay acceptance speech.
"All you people out there who feel like there's no mirror for you, that your life isn't reflected, the academy has your back," Jenkins said. "The ACLU has your back. We have your back. And for the next four years, we will not forget you."
Jenkins' shoutout to the ACLU was particularly poignant given the organization's role in defeating Trump's Muslim ban in court and its work in representing 17-year-old transgender Gavin Grimm in his upcoming Supreme Court case to access public facilities that match his gender identity. Jenkins understands the way the film mirrors the disturbing reality that children like Chiron may face in Donald Trump's America.
Chiron's life was altered by his mother's drug addiction. Vice president Mike Pence left drug users out in the cold — and caused an entire HIV outbreak — when he defunded Indiana's Planned Parenthood, the sole agency responsible for HIV testing in some parts of the state.
Chiron lived inside the school-to-prison pipeline, was incarcerated for defending himself and begins to sell drugs for a living. Trump has dubbed himself the "law and order" president. He may increase the scope of police power during his presidency and has hinted that he may be even harsher on recreational marijuana in the near future. Trump has indicated that he will be no friend to the LGBTQ community at large when he rescinded Obama's guidance aiding transgender kids to access public facilities that match their gender identity.
Moonlight sends a message that the systematic devaluing of black and brown queer youth will not stand at an artistic level. Moonlight's victory — awkwardly flubbed at first and given to La La Land — is a fulfillment of the promise of earlier films like Paris Is Burning and Tongues Untied, both of which argued for the inherent value of queer black and Latino life and the importance of artistic expression in those communities.
Because these films highlight the value of black queer lives, they are also essential in helping LGBTQ youth develop their sense of identity. As David Halperin wrote in his tome How to Be Gay, gayness isn't modeled for us in our families the same way straightness is modeled. Therefore, gay people require "contact with the larger society and the larger world" to learn about our culture and ourselves. Media like Moonlight teaches queer people about ourselves.
Hollywood executives could learn from the success of Moonlight and start to hire and support more people in marginalized communities. Tarell Alvin McCraney won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay after writing the source material, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It needs to trust talent like Joi McMillon, who took Jenkins' directorial work, crafted it into a story and became the first black woman to be nominated for best editing at the Oscars.
"It's about making sure the entire process from who gets to tell to the story to how it its told is more inclusive than it has been in the past," Reign said.
Moonlight will continue to have great cultural significance for decades to come. But, perhaps more importantly, it will continue to resonate with those who watch it and learn from it. It will stir something inside queer black youth that they may not have known existed prior.
It will help people confront one of the film's central questions, asked to Chiron in the film's final third: "Who is you?" With films like Moonlight in the cultural ether, more queer black youth may soon be able to articulate an answer.