Gender and Sexuality Column

‘Moonlight’ winning Best Picture demonstrates a Hollywood that embraces black, queer characters, rather than ignore them

Courtesy of ABC

In a country that seems obsessed with the past, the Academy showed Sunday that it was ready to embrace the future.

The Oscars have always been about more than movies. Cinema shapes culture and films have been credited for sparking national discussion about social issues. As a result, the annual ritual of the Academy Awards wields massive cultural power. The Oscars determine not only the films that audiences see, but also the films they see as important.

So, when “Moonlight,” with its queer, black protagonist, toppled the industry favorite, “La La Land,” to take Best Picture, it wasn’t simply a victory for diversity in film. It was a victory for everyone who has, historically, been poorly represented by Hollywood.

It makes sense in a political climate so deeply divided that the two frontrunners for this year’s award were so polarizing. “La La Land’s” romanticization of the past stood in direct opposition to “Moonlight’s” revolutionary depiction of nontraditional subjects.

“I think, despite ‘La La Land’ being touted as innovative, ‘Moonlight’ is much more innovative and challenges audiences,” said Craig Thornton, an adjunct professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University.

“Moonlight” centers on an experience so rarely seen in cinema: that of a queer, black man from an impoverished community. It explores complex ideas about homophobia, masculinity and drug addiction through the eyes of its black characters. Rather than examine its characters from the outside, the film forces its audience to empathize with its protagonist’s experiences.

If the purpose of art is to reflect society, the filmmaking industry usually fails all but its straight, white members. By awarding “Moonlight” Best Picture, the Academy emphasizes the importance of movies that challenge traditional notions of who deserves to appear on film considering the characters we see portrayed in film deter mine who society considers valuable.

“Moonlight” is so spectacular because it reimagines what filmmaking could look like in the future. This stands in stark contrast to the nostalgia of “La La Land” for a cinema of the past.

In fact, much of the “La La Land” appeal is that it’s a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, an era responsible for classic American musicals. It was also an era of cinema in which people of color weren’t prevalent or, worse yet, caricatured portrayals by white actors in race-bending makeup. Plotlines were constrained to rigid standards, meaning that the only stories that were considered acceptable to tell were about straight, white, usually-male protagonists.

For better or worse, “La La Land” embraces these Old Hollywood conventions. It faithfully captures the visual style and charm of the era’s musicals. But it also, true to form, centers on two straight, white protagonists. Even though “La La Land” is set in modern-day, diverse Los Angeles, the majority of people of color on-screen appear only as nameless extras dancing in the background. They exist only to build a world for the film’s white main characters to live in.

“There will be some people who never really care to see stories outside their comfort zone or life experience, but it is important to show them,” Thornton said in an interview before the ceremony. “If (“Moonlight”) were to win, the audience that would meet this challenge would be greater.”

When someone’s experiences — their hopes, desires, pain and triumphs — are authentically represented, they’re humanized to audiences. In a culture that continually dehumanizes queer people of color, the importance of “Moonlight,” and urgency, cannot be overstated.

The Best Picture win for “Moonlight” means more than merely rewarding a great film. It means challenging established ideas within the film industry about who deserves to be represented and who doesn’t. It means questioning Hollywood standards that cast queer people of color as “others.”

By awarding “Moonlight” the night’s highest honor, the Academy dramatically changes what an Academy Award-winning film can look like. While it doesn’t mean that Hollywood’s representation problem has magically been solved, it does open the door for other diverse stories to be told.

The “Moonlight” victory should encourage the filmmakers to accept the future. And hopefully the “La La Land” loss will reassure them it’s okay to leave the past behind.

Gene Wang is a junior public relations major and women’s and gender studies minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at gwang19@syr.edu.

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