A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I labored as a film critic.
Labored is probably too strong a word — I actually enjoyed my years writing about film. It’s what got me into journalism and, tangentially, led me to start Metro Weekly. And while I don’t miss having to attend roughly 300 films a year, I’m no less passionate about the medium.
Over the years, the magazine has featured expansive coverage of movies in general, with specialized focus in LGBTQ cinema. One of our proudest accomplishments has been our exhaustive coverage of movies at the Reel Affirmations film festival, which we started covering in 1994. As a result, we have assembled well over 1,000 reviews of all types of LGBTQ films — from features to documentaries to musicals to the shortest of shorts. Much of the repository is still on our site, starting with the 2003 festival. And glancing over those lists of films reminds you of how far LGBTQ cinema has come in 23 years.
In 2009, Sean Bugg, my co-editor at the time, and I decided to celebrate the Oscars with a cover story entitled “25 Gay Films Everyone Should See.” It took us a week of arguing to sort that first list (I was adamant that The Birdcage was a redundant addition, given we had La Cage aux Folles on it).
We followed in 2011 with “25 Gay Films Everyone Should See: The Sequel” (still adamant about no Birdcage) and again in 2013 with “25 Gay Films Everyone Should See 3D” (no Birdcage!). I actually had a master plan to do “The Final Chapter” and “A New Beginning,” but we never got around to it. Instead, we took side journeys. We looked at 13 camp films in 2012, and in 2015, with the help of the DC Shorts Film Festival, we focused on — what else? — LGBTQ shorts.
For this year, particularly with the rise of Moonlight, it became clear we celebrate African-American essentials of the LGBTQ cinemagoing experience. Working with contributor André Hereford, himself a former film industry professional, a strong list of 15 movies was agreed on, a list we all felt encompassed a perfect range of everything from drama to comedy to camp. The collection provides a phenomenal overview of cinematic evolution and achievement within a black LGBTQ framework.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this year’s Oscar nominee Moonlight. Yes, it’s a gay film. Yes, it’s an African-American film. But it’s also a phenomenal film without those classifications. It’s a rare achievement in filmmaking; director Barry Jenkins and his astonishing cast achieve an emotional poetry that eludes even the most accomplished veteran filmmakers.
With a narrative that deals with gay coming of age issues while living in a rough area of Miami in the ’80s, the movie defies both conventions and expectations as it follows the circumstances and quiet yet significant moments that define and shape a young boy’s life, not necessarily in the best possible way, but always in the most meaningful one. The young protagonist’s salvation is in both his tentative and resolute acceptance of his sexuality. But Moonlight really has less to do with being gay and more to do with understanding one’s heart. It is, above and beyond all else, a story of finding, feeling and learning love.
The Academy, so thoughtless in its perpetual rewarding of white actors, directors, writers and film craftspersons, felt a sting last year with the #oscarssowhite campaign. They’ve been handed a gift with Moonlight, a chance for redemption, a chance to set themselves on a better path to future diversity in the films they acknowledge with nominations and ultimately honor with Oscars.
If nothing else, the Academy should do the right thing and bestow Moonlight with its top honor. And the beautiful thing is that it’s not a gratuitous vote (“We can award something gay and black and that buys us another 20 years of voting white!”). Moonlight actually deserves the Best Picture Oscar. For its raw, beautiful, engrossing intensity, for its ability to make you feel more deeply than a film has made you feel in years, if not decades. For its proof that you don’t need to spend $150 million to create something astonishing. All you need is a great script, a director with a vision, and a gifted cast.
Finally, Moonlight deserves the benefits that come with an Oscar — a re-release in theatres and the prospect of a larger audience. An audience who may come away surprised at what an authentic masterpiece looks like.