Marijke Rowland

The magic of “Moonlight” is in those who finally see themselves reflected in its light

Mahershala Ali, shown holding Alex Hibbert, won the best-supporting-actor Oscar for his role in the best-picture-winning “Moonlight.”
Mahershala Ali, shown holding Alex Hibbert, won the best-supporting-actor Oscar for his role in the best-picture-winning “Moonlight.” A24

“Moonlight” was probably not made for you, and that’s OK.

The surprise best picture winner at the 89th annual Academy Awards last weekend was a stunning choice for more reasons than its bungled announcement. While the snafu may have gotten most of the headlines, the heart of this win is a triumph for inclusive storytelling.

Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney put it best during his acceptance speech for adapted screenplay alongside co-writer and director Barry Jenkins: “This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you you, and us.”

Because that’s who “Moonlight” was really made for. That it was able to reach out and touch an audience beyond its poor, black and gay subjects is a testament to the human capacity for empathy.

Filmmaking long has had two goals: to entertain and to enlighten. At its best, they are non-mutually exclusive.

For people accustomed to seeing themselves on screen – their victories, their heartbreaks, their mundane and their sublime – the impact of “Moonlight” may be muted. What’s another love story or another coming-of-age-story when the universe has already given you hundreds, thousands, millions to choose from? But for those who may rarely, or never, see their lives mirrored back to them – “Moonlight” is a lifeline.

You may not recognize yourself in this story of the minefields of modern masculinity, the ravages of a homophobic culture and the complexities of growing up as a black man in America. But for the people who do or who can, think what it must mean to finally see yourself? To know others struggle, hope, love, live as you do?

Representation matters. How do we know how to dream, if we’re never shown the dreamers?

The Oscars have taken justified heat over the years for its lack of diversity. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was born out of two consecutive years of only white acting nominees. This year’s nominees, and winners, reflected a much wider and welcome spectrum of humanity with seven of the 20 acting nominations going to people of color.

The win for “Moonlight” also takes nothing away from “La La Land,” a technicolor delight filled with verve and nostalgia. In handing over the mistaken best picture statuette to Jenkins, “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz showed true grace under what must have been crushing circumstances. It’s unfortunate that some have called “Moonlight” beating out “La La Land” an affirmative action win. That it was a reaction to past criticism. But to reduce the film to that is to do great disservice to its place in history.

The first film about LGBT people to win a best-picture Oscar. The first film with an all-black cast to win a best-picture Oscar. The first film with a black director to win a best-picture Oscar.

All these firsts in the year 2017, when we’ve already invented self-driving cars and commercial space travel.

Almost as exciting as the “Moonlight” news is how well, as in count them dollars exciting, other diverse films have done recently. “Hidden Figures,” the also Oscar-nominated story of the until now largely unrecognized African American female engineers who helped launch the first American man into space, was No. 1 at the box office for three consecutive weeks. It has grossed about $170 million on a production budget of $25 million. Similarly, the just-released horror film debut of director Jordan Peele “Get Out” was No. 1 at the box office last weekend. It grossed $37.5 million on a $4.5 million budget.

So while “Moonlight” may not have been made for you, what it represents is more films being made for more people. More “you’s” having a chance, perhaps for the first time, to feel understood and seen. And that, that will always be more than OK.

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