The Case For “Moonlight” in the Wake of the “La La Land” Ba-Ba-Backlash


The Oscars may have nine nominees in the category for Best Picture, but let’s face it. Everyone has their eyes glued on Damien Chazelle’s uplifting musical Hollywood spectacular La La Land and Barry Jenkins’ beautiful emotionally-charged coming-of-age drama Moonlight. Between the two, La La Land is the favorite to win. As joyous and celebratory the film is, there seems to be a backlash to the awards season darling. Yup. Everyone has grown tired of seeing that picture of Gosling and Stone in mid-dance set to the picture-esque, smogless backdrop of L.A. (as seen above). It hasn’t necessarily paved the way for Moonlight to take the lead in the Oscar race because everyone is too busy turning their backs on the musical, so now is the better time than any to give the case of why Moonlight should win… and why it won’t.

First thing’s first: why is all this shade being thrown at La La Land? From the get-go it promises a grand ol’ musical time reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood as it opens with an impressive one-shot song and dance number on a traffic jammed L.A. overpass (the ramp connecting the carpool lanes of the 105 and the 110 to be exact). So once Chazelle gives you an amuse bouche of what’s to come, the audience thinks, “I’m SO in! This is gonna be fantastic!” And it is… for the most part.

As the days, weeks, and months passed, from the initial screening at TIFF (read my review here if you are so inclined), the praise started to fade and an Avatar-esque backlash started. Critics and audiences started picking it apart — as you do with any film that has oversaturated the market. Think pieces scrutinizing the film started to roll out and most recently, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a piece for the Hollywood Reporter on how the movie “misleads” when it comes “race, romance, and jazz.” And when an NBA legend has strong opinions about a Hollywood musical, that’s when it’s serious.

As Abdul-Jabbar mentioned, the storyline of how Sebastian (Gosling) wants to revive jazz has been a problem for many. Mainly because it’s a white savior-adjacent plot point. Many are tired of seeing a white guy trying to be the saving grace of the jazz — which we all know is a music genre with deep black roots. As much as I disagree with the appropriation of cultural elements from people of color, this isn’t a film about jazz. Don’t get it twisted — I’m not overlooking this because there are several complaints that the film was “too white.” As inspiring and uplifting as the film is, this would definitely be a different experience if the leads were two people of color.

But I have my own personal complaints about La La Land — like how NO ONE is that happy in a traffic jam as shown in the opening number. Also, when Sebastian goes to Nevada to visit Mia and then they drive back to L.A. to go to her big audition, does she just leave her Prius there for the rest of the movie? Speaking of that audition, when the casting agents ask her to tell them a story about herself, she talks about the time when her aunt was in Paris and fell into a river — and she booked a gig off of that lame story? Seriously? That is hardly a story. I sincerely have issues with that.

In the end, La La Land does its job, but the problem is that, despite its bittersweet happy ending, it is an optimistic film — and people love surges of cynicism to balance out the happiness. Think of it this way: if you have a friend who is happy, bright, and overly optimistic all the time, their company is appreciated — for a very limited amount of time. The more time you spend with them, the closer you get to strangling them. That is what this movie has become. Or you can look at it this way: hating La La Land is like hating the city of Los Angeles: it’s the cool thing to do.

The fantastical sugar high and classic tale of “making it in Hollywood” makes La La Land reach a wide audience. That, along with its enchanting musical sheen make the film timeless like many musicals before it. But modestly laying low with a strong presence, there’s Moonlight, Jenkins’ opus of race, identity, tolerance, and love. The film is poignant with topics and issues that are hovering in today’s social climate, making it more timely than La La Land.

Without a doubt, Moonlight is a finer film than La La Land in terms of the art of filmmaking. Film nerds and cinephiles of the highbrow variety have gushed about the film. Alessio Marinacci went as far as to create a stunning video essay comparing Moonlight to the works of Wong Kar-Wai.

Moonlight presents a whole new storytelling avenue for people of color by telling the experience of a gay black man in three stages of his life. As a director, Jenkins paints a phenomenal portrait of a single character played by three different actors and not once do you doubt that these actors are playing a different person — that is some goddam brilliance right there. That alone should win Jenkins at least the Best Director trophy. And with that, the story and overall filmmaking makes it worthy of Best Picture.

Gay and homosexual narratives have been told in various films, but there haven’t been many (if any at all) films that tell the story of the black gay narrative — a story that differs from the typical white gay narrative that we have seen. But Jenkins does not make this THAT “gay black movie.” Jenkins subtly uses the narrative as a jumping-off point to tell a relatable story about one boy’s need to love, be loved, and ultimately accepted as he explores his identity. From beginning to end, Moonlight beams with unwavering emotion, phenomenal performances, and unrivaled direction by King Jenkins.

Yes, Moonlight is my personal favorite and yes, I am rooting for it to win Best Picture, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like Hollywood is ready for a film like this to win — even though it should be. As we have seen, the film industry, unlike their TV brethren, doesn’t move at a swift pace when it comes to progressive ideas.

The last film with a predominantly cast of color to win Best Picture was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2013. In 2015, Selma was nominated, but surrounded by movies that included predominantly white casts. Other films with black casts to be nominated for Best Picture in the past decade or so included Precious, The Help, and Django Unchained. Do you see a pattern here? These are all similar stories that show a similar narrative that include an “urban” story, a story about slaves, or a story about the black struggle. Although they are all deserving stories to be told, there is a lot more to the black community than this — which is what makes Moonlight special.

Jenkins’ film seems to be breaking this cycle by introducing a whole point of view — a point of view that breaks this “slavery/urban/black struggle” cycle that Hollywood seems to be stuck in. The same exact thing can be said about Hidden Figures, Fences, and Lion — all tell different kind of stories that go beyond Hollywood’s usual portrayal of people of color. Whether or not this is a reaction to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite shouldn’t matter because it needed to happen. Audiences have seen plenty of stories about blue-collar working class white men in New England going through an existential crisis and I’m pretty sure there will be more. So I think it wouldn’t hurt to include new, fresh stories from and by people of different races, classes, and sexual orientations. The industry is making it happen — it may not be at the pace we want — but it’s happening.

As hard as I try, comparing Moonlight and La La Land is difficult because both are fine films in their own right — but they’re in two different lanes. La La Land is commercial and spectacle whereas Moonlight is intimate and visceral. La La Land is filled with banner names like Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, J.K. Simmons and helmed by a young man that Hollywood adores. Moonlight is directed by a once-obscure talented directed and filled with up-and-coming as well as overlooked talent that are finally getting their due (I see you, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali). Having them compete with each other is comparing a dish from Chili’s to a dish from The French Laundry — both are good in their own right but totally different in tastes.

But even though they are in two different leagues, the Oscars are an unforgiving competition and want to pit them against each other. That said, La La Land, with all of its musical Hollywood worship, is most likely going to win even though Moonlight speaks more to these times of uncertainty and a volatile social climate where marginalized communities are struggling for acceptance. Considering many actors and actresses in the Academy have been using the awards season as a pulpit to speak out for equality, tolerance, and change, maybe — just maybe — my prediction will be wrong and Moonlight will win. I guess we’ll just have to see if these outspoken actors will put their vote where their mouth is — I’m looking at you to lead the charge, Meryl Streep.

 | Staff Writer
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