Greetings media critical readers!
Trouble in Black Paradise follows two landmark filmmaker’s trail!
A first glimpse of Moonlight caught me during a theater preview. It was almost startling to see yet another unmistakable Black 2016 theme, in a string of serious dramatic studies “magically” lining-up—I was then attending Free State of Jones.
This followed a year industry elites gave a flagrant reminder. Hollywood still guards & wields racially blighted tradition at its leisure: no Black actor was deemed to be worthy enough for any of 2015’s Oscar nominations
A new line-up did predictably find oppression threading a common tie. But stark “contemporary” grit has Moonlight standing out. Those other depictions, The Birth of a Nation, Hidden Figures, Loving, Fences, & James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro ranged from slavery’s era to battles for mid 20th century Civil Rights. The documentary 13th uncannily ties U.S. slavery with 21st century mass incarceration & O.J.: Made in America examines a “sold-out” Black superstar’s murderous tragedy.
But Moonlight’s modern-day core proposed another battle: homosexual conundrum set squarely in the “hood”—showcased in turbulently impoverished millennial youth—giving a rebel subject its precarious place; infiltrating a customarily hostile family table. The cultural battle among social renegades is now unavoidably internal.
To this day white protocol still overwhelmingly dictates & skews Afro tales—the rare Spike Lee’s, John Singleton’s & emerging Ava DuVernay’s fighting to reverse the tide. Heterosexual protocol similarly demands the same—limiting gay presence to woeful buffoonery, or insufficient figures doomed to tragedy—if depicted at all. Irony binding the two here should miss no one.
Many of us veteran Black gay activists fought hard to have our stories find daylight—told & produced by us in our literary words—through our own nitty-gritty “vision”—let alone hit the big screen. We had no gained legalities to cushion society’s ruthless physical & emotional response to our courage. And Black gay filmmakers who’re all but extinct—Oakland’s Marlon Riggs collaborating with DC’s Essex Hemphill (1989 Tongues Untied)—now long deceased, forged on in spite of this. My own book Trouble In Black Paradise chronicles the testament on this behalf.
We as oppressed know all minorities here suffer the same problem: a hostile, domineering segment controls all avenues of narrative. Battle “winners” tell the tale—and regulate the “outlets.” But like Caucasians Black mainstreamers cared not to include credible gay “visuals” in Afro schemes—let alone our “truths.”
So I took a deep breath before this movie started, apprehensive about where it would take me.
It makes the sparkling work of two pioneering, audacious young Black filmmakers all the more thrilling—even miraculous! Moonlight received 8 Oscar nominations, winning 3, with no established “superstar” actors. Tarell Alvin McCraney 36 & Barry Jenkins 37 are the story’s author & director/screenwriter respectively. Both come from Miami’s predominantly Black Liberty City slum—Moonlight’s setting—their identical circumstances uncanny, each modeling all character’s conditions. All but one: writer McCraney is “gay identified”; director Jenkins a heterosexual.
Suddenly I saw my own family & early “hood” setting spread strikingly bare across this screen.
Protagonist Chiron’s dilemma is followed in 3 phases: prepubescent, adolescence & young adulthood. Chiron (pronounced “Shy-ron”) plagued by typical tragic “hood” conditions, has an absentee father & a mother Paula (British actress Naomi Harris, its Best Supporting Actress Nominee) ravaged by crack addiction. Struggling with this crippling inheritance is compounded by his “latent” homosexuality, its vibrant “pulse” making him horrified—signs spill out providing barefaced public recognition—tormenting Chiron far beyond his understanding, or control.
Chiron’s excruciating attempt to figure out this “pulse” & why it draws such violence & ostracism to him, is bone crushing weight for a young child—no mentor for soothing clarity; demoralizing attack permeating & as inescapable as the air he breaths—even at home. McCraney & Jenkins brilliantly convey this in all phases—rewarded with the Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
But these adroit artists also dare go beyond one dimensional portrayal of “hood” & hostility toward gays. Layers of human empathy & support creep forth just like in real life—from most unexpected places—images revealing tenderness & caring do lie lodged in hardened urban crust—situations standard filmmakers never offer general viewers.
Mahershala Ali (Free State of Jones, Luke Cage) also from Oakland, plays Juan, a hardened dominant drug dealer whose products also service Chiron’s mom. Juan knows all players & circumstances. Inner reflections hint that Juan sees the bigger picture—the greater tragedy where institutional racism (& homophobia) boxes an entire people in, causing victims to monstrously devour one another—exacerbated by a domineering religion’s corrupted morality, strangling greater possibility on the human spectrum.
A gleam of guilt flickers—Juan’s better potential having been robbed itself—thus he takes battered underdog Chiron under his wing. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (recording artist Janelle Monáe; also Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures) lovingly accepts being big sister—offsetting Chiron’s self-consumed mother.
Ali marvelously enacted Juan’s internal process—undoubtedly adding weight to his un-dubious walk-off with the coveted Best Supporting Actor trophy. And the rarity of a ghetto hardened grown male seen as a sensitive surrogate for a confused young homosexual boy I knew would be for some a difficult swallow. A conversation later drove this home:
One social justice activist, an older white female, had trouble with that depiction. It just didn’t “sit right” with her—somehow it seemed not plausible. Even my experience outright lending the segment credence—adding the importance of such realities finally being showcased (broadening perspectives beyond exclusively depicted “hood” callousness)—didn’t budge her: those locked in “feelings” overriding the intrusion of humanity suddenly seen conceived in a Black slum thug.
It shows the glue power, especially of “racial stereotypes” fixed on a psyche—comfort with a narrow, diminishing perspective not being dislodged by inconceivable counter “truths”—and why our reversal campaigns must be huge & diligent.
Incidentally, Juan’s character was modeled on writer McCraney’s younger brother’s father; a figure who stepped-in to nurture & protect McCraney—just like Juan.
Again, I saw my family & neighborhood all over that screen.
Once in 1964 I witnessed my older nephew drawing vicious attack, reminiscent of Elizabeth Eckford’s in 1957’s Little Rock Nine. We were movie buffs, I about 9-years-old & Larry about 15, off to the local park. A flash-mob styled crowd slammed us out of nowhere corralling Larry, venom exploding squarely in his face & slashing at his heels—a hornet’s nest of angry Black youth unleashed torrents of feminine denigration—calling him “freak,” taunting with physical threats.
They were like Arkansas’ white schoolyard mob, rippling with unspoken “authority” to do so. And like Eckford, with trembling head held high, Larry fought to ignore them—carful steps planted to find his destination. Though shocked & stunned they ignored me. After the movie they picked-up where leaving off—every step up to property’s end. It explained why Larry only came & went out our “back” door. I, a traumatized 9-year-old, cried privately when we got home, unable to comfort Larry—or even mention it.
In 1969 Larry received an “undesirable discharge” from the army. The next year he walked out our backdoor & into an uncertain historical mystery—never to be seen or heard from by us again.
And of surrogates:
My loving, involved father offered opportunity to my peers whose father’s were nonexistent. Growing older I did the same to fatherless nephews & nieces whose mother—my older sister—preferred self-absorbed recklessness & child neglect. As Juan does for Chiron I took them to San Diego’s nature, entertainment & educational venues they’d never have experienced—most “hood” children never taste their own city’s renowned resources.
But a reverse twist finds many of these same family members celebrating their extreme homophobia—on a level of “worship”—the rift polarizing us impossible to bridge.
Hence a thing Moonlight doesn’t directly address is this:
“Radicalized” Christianity commands standard Black worship—inhumane Protestant & Catholic ideology co-opting “hospitality”—permission given to suspend protecting the “downtrodden”—Afro psyches commanded to explosively render gay “visuals” taboo. Basically the same religious “blueprint” white protocol uses when justifying brutal acts waged against Black lives.
Progress means this topic must eventually be hit head-on. But Moonlight’s well depicted story truly implies what unspoken corrosive sources lie beneath. And so many marvelously executed roles: Alex R. Hibbert, Aston Sanders & Trevante Rhodes as Chiron in phases leading to adult; Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome & André Holland as 3 stages of his friend Kevin.
Jenkins rightfully drew a Best Director nomination.
Moonlight flows, is beautifully filmed & well put together—hence wining nominations for Film Editing & Cinematography. Keenly selected music tagging a knock-your-socks-off ending also slipped it into the Best Original Score category.
And the Academy’s “crown jewel”: Moonlight for “Best Picture!”
Unprecedented! It’s the first ever for both an “African-American” director and an LGBTQ theme: both thought socially at odds but paired again—like Dr. King & Bayard Rustin—forging new progress ground. Here’s one major testament to a project with a mere 5 million dollar budget—filmed in 4 months. Unspoiled by an ironic, Oscar blunder for-the-ages—the incorrect envelope handed, initially bringing up the wrong recipients.
12 Years A Slave was first to win in 2014, but for “Afro-British” director Steve McQueen.
Seven Black themed works received nominations (including Hidden Figures, Loving, 13th & I Am Not Your Negro) with three winning—Viola Davis also got Best Supporting Actress for Fences; O.J.: Made in America Best Documentary “feature.”
But for breaking Oscar ground & blazing thematic trails—the night belonged to Moonlight!