No matter how much it may not seem it, movies are as much of an active process as they are a passive experience.
Two movies this year captured this cinematic dichotomy: La La Land and Moonlight. The former represented the beauty of letting a film wash over you, the latter an experience that demanded your focus, of many things but above all, focus of feeling. The two have been positioned with each other, beyond the Academy Awards snafu, all the way back to when they blew up on the festival circuit. Even more so with our current commander in chief, it seemed destiny that they be intrinsically linked—a parable for our divided times, much as Adele and Beyoncé played out at a similar awards show. What’s so unfortunate about this duality is that it ignores the wide spectrum of merit both films inhabit: it implies that there very much is a hierarchy to something subjective.
More than anything though, it’s truly unfortunate because Moonlight, like any exceptional film, has earned the right to stand on its own.
It would be ignorant to say that this linking of great black artworks to white counterparts doesn’t stem from a historical bias. Likewise, it would be dishonest to not mention my own intimate connection to Moonlight. Moonlight was more thrilling and more personal to me because of its unabashed queerness—it’s central storyline, it’s abstract nature, it’s atypical triptych narrative. Beyond this connection, I saw Moonlight as a representation of what is so beautiful about the film industry, about telling stories and making movies. I saw a movie that should be the standard—a movie that represented just what the industry meant when it did not get lost in the dream of itself. It’s a little ironic isn’t it, that to me, Moonlight was a greater ode to films and filmmaking than even La La Land.
Behind this story of dueling movies and an Academy blunder was an exceptional film caught in the middle.
I’d be the first to admit that the Academy Awards are kind of a foolish endeavor to set an objective value to subjective experiences. I could also go on about how archaic the voting rules are, not even to mention the demographics of the voting body. Yet, as film lovers and especially as film consumers, the Academy is sort of a standard-bearer for the larger mainstream industry—a box office and historical boon for the winner. Make no mistake, change is very much bottom up, in filmmaking and in society. There’s a very clear link from grassroots activism for increased visibility, to the criminally underrated Pariah, and to Moonlight’s Best Picture win. It’s why it’s even more satisfying when the Academy recognizes truly exceptional and meaningful work.
This year’s Best Picture favorite La La Land was a great film, in a year full of great films. As a fan of Technicolor movies and movie musicals, this was a film tailor made for me. Yet, La La Land felt ineffectual, perhaps more so in hindsight than in the moment. It seemed to be more of a declaration of Hollywood’s value to itself, as opposed to a declaration of Hollywood’s value to the world—think Cinema Paradiso for the latter. Likewise, it was more of a self-congratulatory film that feels even more out of touch in a real world growing crazier every day.
La La Land was a representation of the best and worst of mainstream filmmaking.
This isn’t to say that La La Land’s themes weren’t valuable simply because they weren’t overtly political—I’d argue that Moonlight wasn’t overtly political either, so much as it is overtly politicized. Moreso, La La Land served as a larger example, and reminder, of Hollywood’s increasing distance from the world that a majority of its audience members inhabit. It was a well-executed film with good intentions and pure themes. It was a testament to Old Hollywood, to artistry, and to chasing something seemingly unreal and unattainable, even if at times, it seemed to favor unfeeling preservation over dynamic revitalization. Yet, in La La Land, characters simply dance from plot point to plot point with ease, until the scheduled conflict appears. Likewise, it’s melancholy ending is meant to be felt deeply, but really doesn’t touch on anything real or true—we’d have to understand our characters more profoundly for that to occur. Without truth or emotion to prop up these colorful dreams, it’s easy for us, the viewers, to be so enamored with the earnestness of La La Land, because the film rarely asks us to go deeper than it’s surface. I do realize these arguments can also be made in the film’s favor, but in a way, the film was as much in love with the dream of Hollywood—the vision of what the industry is and could be—as the celebrities who populate the real place.
I’m not going to use the term “liberal bubble”, because there isn’t a problem with a particularly liberal philosophy—nor are liberals the only ones trapped in an echo chamber. But, there is a sort of bubble around Hollywood. Arguably, it’s a world of dreams—a dream world that sees change flowing from it and progress just one speech away from being accomplished. It’s one that stems from the McCarthy era, when filmmakers, performers, and artists were at risk of persecution—both legal and social—from the government. This risk was even more potent for queer people and people of color. Hollywood still sees itself as a persecuted group, when in reality they are an elite population in tax brackets far above the majority of average filmgoers and one that consistently preaches progressive and liberal values, while never doing any real, effective work for these causes.
I’m going to bring up the Meryl in the room, because its been bothering me, especially in this film season. Her Golden Globes speech and celebrity political speeches are nothing new. Perhaps, because of Moonlight’s win and the very real and scary problems being created by this new administration, her political “activism” is becoming even more discordant, almost vaguely performative, as is the pedestal Hollywood consistently puts celebrities on for giving these types of bland, ineffectual speeches and statements. Ineffectual, because rarely does any significant change come from them, nor is Streep really saying anything revolutionary for her or for the people surrounding her. Meryl Streep literally took no risks for making that speech. If anything, one could argue, she only got the Academy Award Best Actress nomination because of that speech: it’s kind of a proven fact that nominations and wins come from a whole stew of things not limited to the actual performance—which is even more terrible since Florence Foster Jenkins sets up some pretty murky gender politics without ever actually addressing them. What would have been risky for Streep is pointing out how egregious Hollywood’s treatment and representation of people with disabilities has been or even pointing out how our current president’s mocking of people with disabilities stems from a larger cultural issue that is reflected in the film industry.
Okay. I’m being very hard on Meryl Streep. She’s a fantastic actress and certainly an inspiration to so many people. She also has a huge platform beyond her Hollywood peers, so the far-reaching influence of a speech like that on the everyday person is immeasurable. Likewise, I do know that the speech garnered about $80,000 for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which was her true goal after all. I can’t speak to her support of people with disabilities, because as of now, there’s really no information on that—a relevant point in light of her speech, precisely because she used people with disabilities as a prop for a separate statement about the importance of journalistic freedom. This use of political props and performance is a staple of celebrities, who do have every right to voice their politics. Yet, as a growing number of Americans become dissatisfied by an increasingly alienating group of elite politicians on both sides of the aisle, Hollywood politics—and elite celebrities—grow increasingly hollow, masturbatory, and vain. Likewise, the films that the Academy, which is of course a reflection of the larger industry, chooses as standard bearers grow increasingly hollow, masturbatory, and vain.
In an industry and country that has done more harm than good to marginalized communities and makes no large attempt to increase the visibility of those marginalized communities, even the seemingly most innocuous actions can have deeper meanings.
For it’s really not just Meryl Streep. Nor is it just Hollywood. It’s America at large. It’s a president who is little more than a showman and a former celebrity. It’s a world that is changing quicker than we can keep up with. We long for the easy way, for a way to seem better than we are without ever having to make any real significant changes. We so want the dreams we live in to be the truth that we end up performing meaningless or harmful actions in order to somehow prove we are not the hindrance to these progressive and liberal dreams. These actions aren’t examples of true empathy, they’re expressions of self-congratulations: we do so little and expect so much. Real meaningful activism and allyship means doing things that can actively be against our best interests, or in the case of celebrities, that can damage their brand. Yet, these are the realest expressions of empathy.
Moonlight worked so well because of its seeming opposition to these surface-level actions of empathy. The film focuses on an individual so intimately and so personally that, by film’s end, we understand Chiron in such a way that the film approaches something inexorably real. Every scene is built and centered around Chiron, every aspect of him—but above all, his blackness and his queerness—until the film becomes more than a simple drama: it is a commentary on our masculinity-focused society and the archaic values that twist and distort within our children until they are individuals lost and alone. It also subverts this narrative by instilling true caregiving moments from characters other movies would have left behind. Moonlight doesn’t just care about Chiron, it cares about all of its characters. Because of this, Moonlight is one of the most singular and forward-thinking narratives catapulted to the mainstream in decades. With its acceptance into the mainstream, Moonlight could spur the industry towards a new generation of radical filmmaking—towards a “New New Hollywood”.
Positioning Moonlight as the start of a new film era isn’t exactly a stretch, especially given its Best Picture win. New Hollywood was an American film movement that completely reshaped films, filmmaking, and the major studies who produced and marketed these films. It’s also about the point when Hollywood started explicitly focusing on groundbreaking work that not only engaged the audience, but also challenged power structures, whether they were filmic or real; e.g., Easy Rider and The Learning Tree.
New Hollywood was a literal upheaval of the studio system, but it also reflected the growing changes in American society.
In 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency amidst a great social divide and upheaval. Following suit, the academy bestowed Oliver! with Best Picture in 1969, the year of his inauguration. It is an admittedly great film, but it represented so much of the double standard that Hollywood presents—an opulent feast for the eyes, with little relation to the very real and omnipresent social issues of the country. The following year, the academy recognized Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated picture, with the top award, essentially causing a seismic industry shift—for real, watch Oliver! and Midnight Cowboy as a double feature to a get a sense of how grand this change was.
Last year, we elected a president amidst a great social divide and upheaval. A president who not only sometimes increased this division, but also reflected just how split we are as a society, as a country. Likewise, the critical darling of the year was La La Land. Again, La La Land was a great film. It was a love song for dreamers and dreams, for following your heart, and for the beauty of things broken, things unfinished. It was also a film that rarely touched on anything deeply, intimately true. It was a film, in storyline and in execution, that was at once an exceptional ode to dreams and also a demonstration of how ineffective simply dreaming could be. And fortunately, and most likely the real reason Moonlight‘s win was so surprising, the Academy seems to have understood what is needed most from Hollywood and the film industry right now.
In the words of Barry Jenkins, “To hell with dreams … this is true”.
This was as much a response to the La La Land producers as it was a declaration of Moonlight’s intentions, because Moonlight is unabashedly true at every level. It is unapologetic, which is to say, it never sanitizes or distills aspects of itself for the sake of universality. It centers its black queer narrative amidst nuanced characterizations and takedowns of performative masculinity. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney told a deeply personal story with their film, without limits on narrative or characters. Compare this to Hidden Figures, another Best Picture nom and an okay film only radical because of its subject matter. In Hidden Figures, there is a particularly self-satisfactory moment in which Kevin Costner knocks down the “Colored” sign from the restroom in order that Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, can use whatever bathroom she likes. It’s a very Hollywood scene that rings false specifically because it never happened. Katherine Johnson didn’t have time for segregation or separate bathrooms because she was putting a man in space. She had always used whatever bathroom she wanted. The film removed any agency from the true Katherine Johnson, in order to create some type of universality, which you can read as an attempt to make it easier for white people to care about the characters and the story.
And its bullshit.
A filmmaker shouldn’t misrepresent their characters or sacrifice their story in order to reach for some type of “universality.” Hidden Figures represents a very glaring example of this type of distortion, but many films are guilty of functionally hollow characterization and storytelling—La La Land included. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to empathize, just as it is the audience’s responsibility to empathize, with these characters, regardless of how different their experiences may be. Empathy is an active process for both filmmaker and for film watcher; in many ways, it’s not meant to be easy even for the sake of storytelling. Similarly, there is no such thing as a definitively “human” story capable of universal empathy, because every story is a human story. Frankly, it’s condescending for queer films to reach critical heights and then have to listen to some critic proclaim how universal and human its themes are—even if it is framed positively. Yes, love is universal, but queer love doesn’t mean only queer people can or should empathize. Queer people have been empathizing with countless numbers of “straight” films over the years without ever having to mention how universal or human the themes are.
Empathy is seeing, understanding, and validating another without distilling them or their experiences for the sake of universality.
It’s the central drive of moviemaking and movie watching. It’s the central facet of storytelling. If you want me to go further, it’s the main reason we can do anything in this world without beating each other to a bloody pulp. It’s so pervasive to humanity that Streep, in that Golden Globes speech, instinctively understood what film is all about: “we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.” It’s why Moonlight is such a breathtaking feat of filmmaking. It never once needed to sacrifice any part of its queerness or blackness, because it was confident in the story it was telling and it was also confident in the audience. Moonlight is a story told so intimately and with such feeling that it pushes viewers to look beyond themselves and reach out to another and see them, understand them, and validate them. It does what only exceptional filmmaking can do.
Make no mistake though, when I say empathy, I do not mean pity. Moonlight isn’t one of those “look how sad it is for the poor black kid in the projects” types of movies Hollywood likes to put out there and reward—The Blind Side, for one. If you did watch Moonlight and felt sorry for Chiron, you were only feeling for your self.
Again, empathy is an active process.
And so this linking of Moonlight and La La Land is truly unfortunate, but it’s also somehow fitting. Each represents a kind of vision for Hollywood, in both their themes and execution. One is a nostalgic ode to a past that always seems dreamier than it was, the other a vision of not just the future, but also the all-encompassing now. La La Land implies all that we loathe in Hollywood, but can’t help loving—the dreaminess, the elitist detachment from current events, the ability to imply that the future is a song and a dance away, the testament that dreamy spectacle is relevant to life. Moonlight presents not so much an alternative, but something that has always been vital to filmmaking and always will be. It was a technical masterpiece in which themes were functionally explored through character, narrative, and scene. It gave nuance to all of its characters. It never shied from their flaws, but disrupted what we knew about these characters and about the ways we lose ourselves in performance and hiding.
I can’t help but feel as though La La Land was such a wonder because it rarely spoke about something true. Dreams aren’t true, as much as they feel very much a part of our being. They’re certainly vital, but they aren’t real. To get lost in them is to lose our selves and to lose each other—as La La Land teaches. In times like this … no, in all times, things true and emphatic are the most important.
Films true and emphatic are the most revolutionary.
It’s why it’s especially infuriating when people talk about how they simply want movies to entertain and to escape into. There’s really no such thing as a movie that purely entertains, just as there are so many people that can’t simply escape. Films are constantly representing and reflecting and distorting our reality, even if we think they’re not. We might believe we’re lost in some dream, but really, the dream is becoming a part of us. This isn’t to say we need an limitless supply of “important” films or that there’s a need for an endlessly didactic Hollywood, just as it isn’t to say that the biggest crowdpleasers and blockbusters can’t be made from a place of intimacy and empathy.
I guess what I really want to ask is, don’t we want amazing movies told well? Don’t we want deeply intimate stories that represent everyone to the world; that is, don’t we want films that provide representation for everyone, thereby reflecting the whole host of human experiences without distillation or sanitization? Shouldn’t it be Hollywood’s prerogative to be groundbreaking and radical, especially now? They’re questions for everyone, for the industry at large, for viewers like you and me. When it comes down to it, I don’t know if I’m simply talking about Moonlight and La La Land anymore. I think I’m wondering if we’ve all become a little too inactive, too inert, not just with film, but also in life and in our interactions with each other, whether face to face or virtually.
Perhaps we all got lost in the dream, and forgot just how much work goes into actively living and feeling—and empathizing.
Watching a film and living a life is not so different. Sometimes it is easier to sit passively and let the experience wash over, yet this means giving up on agency or connection. We forget just how much work goes into the minutiae of it all—the everyday sort of choices that are no less tremendous for being mundane: a caregiver’s unconditional acceptance, a boy’s act of violence, a son’s forgiveness, a loving touch. Moonlight is tremendous because it celebrates everyday actions and choices as foundational, even revolutionary, and without judgment, which is not to say without consequence. For there are consequences to these actions—a testament to just how connected we are to each other as much as to the systems we uphold, actively or passively. Moonlight was a true Best Picture and honestly, I’m surprised and thrilled that the Academy recognized it as such. It is arguably the type of movie that is beyond that award, one that could spur a new era of Hollywood filmmaking and political activism steeped in that most tremendous of privileges and responsibilities: empathy.
Moonlight is a film full of empathy, asking you to choose the same.
- Beyoncé should have won. There isn’t truly a hierarchy to something subjective, but Beyoncé should have won.
- Just as a note, Brando was heavily criticized for his Oscar’s activism. Likewise, Michael Moore was booed for his politics at the 2003 Oscars. Kind of gives a little historical perspective to where we are today in terms of politics and Hollywood.
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