There are few recent films as visually stunning and honest as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. The film, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is a work some critics have narrowly described as an “LGBT film.”
But Moonlight is much more than that.
The film is a cinematic meditation on family, boyhood, manhood, intimacy, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, human complexity, and home, told from the unique perspective of black characters navigating life in urban America—characters and experiences often missing in the genre of LGBT films. And that is why I caution the broader, white, LGBT community to not be so quick to claim Moonlight as its own just yet.
In a New Yorker review, Hilton Als described in detail the many ways Moonlight “undoes our expectations” of black representation in cinema. But it also unraveled the expectations of white Hollywood after the all black cast and production team won an Oscar for Best Picture—only after the same award was mistakenly handed over to the mostly white production team and cast of La La Land. The gaffe was an ironic example of the ways exceptional black films tend to be overshadowed by those centering on white characters—even if such films are mediocre.
While watching the awards, I wasn’t even stunned when La La Land was announced. Only a handful of films centered on black people’s lives, directed by black people, have actually won Best Picture. I was most surprised when the mistake was clarified and Moonlight was announced as the real winner.
Moonlight’s well-deserved success is cause for collective celebration. It is an example of what is possible when black filmmakers specifically create art focused not on the Hollywood gaze, but on the worlds from which black people come.
It is also a reminder black men who fall in love with other black men, like the two main characters in Moonlight, are not necessarily best identified as “gay.” Yes, the film depicts two black boys-becoming-men discovering their love, but their expressions of intimacy are no queerer, no more profoundly liberating, than their blackness.
Moonlight is but one example of the type of beautiful and transformative work black filmmakers have always created, and not just this year. Black filmmakers whose works visualize the worlds and lived experiences of black people—sometimes through characters who identify as LGBT—on the big screen or the Internet are overdue for public praise. And even if the film industry and public refuse to offer praise, the work of these filmmakers is no less brave and necessary.
Black filmmakers have always known this to be true and have sought to “create dangerously,” as Haitian-American storyteller Edwidge Danticat encourages, despite the ways the American filmmaking industry has long resisted stories centered on blackness and black LGBT experiences.
Filmmakers including Marlon Riggs, the black gay creator of celebrated documentaries like Tongues Untied (1989) and Black Is… Black Ain’t (1994), and black lesbian filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, the genius behind the classic The Watermelon Woman (1997), are artists whose works critiqued the shortsightedness of most LGBT blockbuster films, works which tend to lack black representation, decades before Moonlight’s well-deserved acclaim. But there are other filmmakers and films the public should be aware of.
Dee Rees’ 2007 film, Pariah, tells the story of black teenage lesbian Alike (Adepero Oduye), growing up and discovering her queerness in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene. Charles B. Brack’s 2008 documentary Dream Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project revisits the murder of a 15-year old from Newark and the resulting court battle, and sheds light on what it means to live life as a young black lesbian navigating a world where homo-antagonism might literally kill.
Campbell X’s 2012 film Stud Life also tackles the complexity of black lesbian lives. And there are other films that peer into black girlhood, womanhood and lesbian experiences the public must watch.
Directed by Dream Hampton in 2015, the documentary Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice Mapping a Detroit Story, chronicles the life and murder of Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard, a 19-year-old trans woman from Detroit. Sean Baker’s hilarious comedy Tangerine (2015) explores the inner lives of trans women sex workers.
Kortney Ryan Ziegler’s groundbreaking documentary, Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen (2008), is, to my knowledge, the only film focused on the lives of black trans men. And Jacqueline Gares’ Free CeCe, was released in 2016, four years after the films’ namesake, CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman from Minneapolis took a plea deal for a second-degree manslaughter charge received for defending herself against a man who attacked her while walking with her friends on a public street.
Patrik Ian Polks’ Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom (2008), The Skinny (2012) and Blackbird (2014) offer contemporary takes on black gay love and friendships, while Darius Clark Monroe’s short “Slow” (2011) addresses the intersectionality of disability, queerness, and black love. And the web series No Shade (2015), is a tear-dripping comedy about black LGBT life in New York from creative and romantic partners Sean Anthony and Terry Torrington.
There are a plethora of films centered on the lives of black people who love and fuck people of the same sex, but we absolutely deserve more. Filmmakers can only create more works, however, if they have the financial resources and industry support to do so. Moonlight was the lowest-budget film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. While that’s evidence of Barry Jenkins’ artistry and ingenuity, it’s also indicative of a larger problem: As long as limited resources are directed toward black films, as long as Hollywood . thinks such films won’t reach mass audiences, the industry’s whiteness problem will never be fixed.
Thank the universe, though, for the genius and tenacity of black artists: Next month, the Torringtons are launching Slay TV, an online platform for original content—web shows, movies, shorts, unscripted series, documentaries, music, and more—focusing on queer people of color. And they’re not waiting for the mainstream and LGBT film industries to give their blessing. It’s that kind of dangerously creative decision that will propel black filmmakers, cultural producers, and audiences forward.
Black people have been ready for these works. Black filmmakers have had no other choice but to create despite limitations. It’s up to the film industry and the LGBT film market to catch up, or sit back and watch from behind as black filmmakers continue to push great and necessary art to the front of the stage without them.