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What is the lowdown on Oscars’ Best Picture ‘Moonlight’?

Mahershala Ali poses in the press room with the award for best actor in a supporting role for "Moonlight" at the Oscars on Feb. 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.   | Photo Credit: AP

What is it about

Coming of age is an easy category to fit Moonlight into. After all, it is about the rite of passage of its lead protagonist Chiron as he grows from “Little” to “Black”— the three chapters in the film titled after his (nick)names echo the significant stages of his life. Yet the film is more. Much as it is an intimate and personal document, it is also universal in its social urgency. It is about Chiron’s hardships, conflicts and confusions, about the violence, both physical and internalised, about being bullied and fighting back, about being abandoned and finding home, about falling out and reconciling, about intense loneliness and finding a kindred spirit and a love that lasts a lifetime, about not knowing who he is to eventually embracing his identity and sexuality. “Decide who you want to be. You can’t let no one make that decision for you,” Juan, a surrogate father figure, tells Chiron. The film then is about Chiron making that vital choice. It is about rolling into the waters to drown his sorrows to learning to swim in the sea of life, without fear or favour. In Chiron’s quiet, gentle persona is also contained a poetic and persuasive tale of an entire underprivileged America. Chiron could be anyone of those poor, gay or black boys who look blue under the moonlight. Moonlight is about what it is to live on the margins.

How did it come about

The making of Moonlight has been as much of a long journey as Chiron’s. Director Barry Jenkins made his debut film, a low budget indie Medicine for Melancholy in 2008 after which, despite the critical acclaim, it was all about eight years of writing many a thwarted screenplay and shelved film. On the other hand was Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the semi-autobiographical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, to cope with his mother’s death from AIDS. That was way back in 2003. It was through Miami’s Borscht Corp that both the long distance runners got together. Jenkins got introduced to the play and began turning it into the screenplay — and eventually a film after his own heart — with McCraney. What you have in the film is an amalgamation of their own experiences — both grew up in Liberty Square where most of the film is set, the mothers of both suffered from drug addiction like Chiron’s mom Paula. No wonder it has been feted for the specificity and rootedness of the black male American experience.

Why does it matter

The film is as much at the margins when it comes to film-making itself: small, arthouse with hardly any star turns, except Naomie Harris, and shot in a mere 25 days. The underdog’s ride to the mainstream approval at the Oscars is marked by several milestones: it became the first film with an all-black cast, the first LGBT film and the second lowest-grossing film domestically (first being The Hurt Locker) to win the best picture award. Mahershala Ali, who played Juan, became the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar and Joi McMillon became the first black woman to be nominated for an editing Oscar. Significant as the Academy was rebuked last year for nominating an all-white group of actors for two years in a row.

What next

And so you have Moonlight that doesn’t step out of Miami ghettos. It is a world of the black and by the black. The only other colour that manages to intrude, metaphorically speaking, is blue: black boys do look blue in the moonlight. That is only up until the mix-up on the Oscars night and sharing the stage, albeit for a very few minutes, with the wholly mainstream (and many shades fairer) La La Land. But as Jenkins has said of the film, it is not just for the black. The hope is that it will inspire more underprivileged to find a voice and expression, talent of all colour to take to film-making and bring more diversity to the precincts of the much critiqued “old, male, white” Academy. What’s more, diversity and inclusiveness, the two words it has come to stand for, wouldn’t have sounded sweeter than in the times of Donald Trump. Jenkins is reported to be working on a script on the life of black American boxer Claressa Shields and another on Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel The Underground Railroad on slavery in Georgia plantations.


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