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A love letter to ‘Moonlight’

‘The wins that ‘Moonlight’ earned were deserved, not because of #OscarsSoWhite’

Moonlight is the best picture of 2016.

This thought was in my head from the moment I first saw it, but I couldn’t say anything. As the creator of #OscarsSoWhite, I wasn’t interested in months of “you just picked that movie because it’s about black people” or “you’re a reverse racist.” So, I held my tongue and waited for the critical acclaim to translate into nominations and awards.

The culmination occurred as Jordan Horowitz, in a lovely example of grace, told the world that it was not his film that had won best picture, but Moonlight. We could have a conversation about that horrible snafu and the poor way that Jimmy Kimmel and Warren Beatty handled the situation, but I refuse to take even one more sentence away from what should be a celebration.

This year, I watched the Oscars for the first time since 2014. For the last two years, I engaged in counterprogramming on Twitter during the Oscars telecast by reasoning that if the Oscars don’t represent me or other marginalized communities, they don’t deserve my ratings, so I would not watch. Because of the significant increase in nominations of people of color this year, I decided to tune in. I watched in a studio greenroom with a diverse group of people: different races, genders, sexual orientation, and ages. To a person, it appeared that we were all rooting for Moonlight to win best picture. Not because it was a “black film,” whatever that means, but because it was the best film of the nine nominees. The film resonated with everyone in that room, even if it wasn’t about them.

Moonlight wasn’t about me. It is the coming-of-age tale of a young, poor, black gay man growing up near Miami. It didn’t tell MY story. But the story itself was beautiful and haunting. It stays with you, a relative rarity in this world of immediate consumption. I had the honor of seeing a screening of the film that preceded an audience talk-back session. A young man, perhaps around the same age as the character Black in the film, stood up and said in a voice broken by emotion, “I’ve never seen myself portrayed that way as a black, gay man.” Imagine that. Twenty years of going to the movies and never once being able to say that you saw yourself. That is what #OscarsSoWhite is about. The goal is that people can experience their stories reflected on the big screen, no matter who they are, what they look like, who they pray to, who they love, or what physical or mental challenges they may have.

The wins for Moonlight, not just at the Oscars but throughout the awards season, are wins for the black LGBTQIA community. It is the first LGBTQIA film to win the Academy Award for best picture. It is so important that they have a moment to bask in this acclaim. For too long, our gay brothers and sisters have been relegated to the shadows. We’ll use their vernacular and be inspired by their fashion sense, but only when it’s comfortable and convenient for us. They deserve to hold their heads even higher today because their complexity, their beauty, has been recognized by what is, for better or worse, the pinnacle of the film industry.

Moonlight is also a triumph for smaller films. The film was shot in under a month with a budget of approximately $1.5 million with a cast that is just now being introduced to many. Yet it garnered the second highest number of Oscars nominations for the year with eight. It is important not just that it received nods in the more popular categories of best actor and actress, directing, and best picture, but also in the adapted screenplay, cinematography, and editing categories, the latter of which gave Joi McMillon a nomination as the first black woman in this category. #OscarsSoWhite is about providing opportunities to filmmakers behind the camera as well. Moonlight is a great example of what can be achieved when an opportunity is provided.

The wins that Moonlight earned were deserved, not because of #OscarsSoWhite. Moonlight would have been a tour de force whether it was released in 1996 or 2016. It was also in preproduction long before I created the hashtag in January 2015. At best, #OscarsSoWhite may have encouraged some to see the film that may not have otherwise. But there’s no way to know that, and I take no credit for it. Moonlight won because it was a film that was so beautifully shot, it seemed that colors and silence were characters. A film so movingly acted that one would guess the three actors who played Chiron spent months learning each other’s cadence and movements instead of the fact that they had never met until after filming. If you need the stamp of approval from an awards show to go see a film, now is your chance. But many of us already knew what the academy announced last night: Moonlight is the best picture of 2016.