I ‘ve seen Moonlight three times. And the movie theater was packed each time with lots of White women, which came as no real surprise; they love a good story about Black pain and triumph.
White folks are often fascinated by stories about Black folks in the ‘hood, in prison and in other cages–feel good stories about those who survive the destructive conditions of their birth. But it seems that many of them, liberals in particular, are less interested in Black stories that end in tragedy, or Black stories that are tragedy personified, or most significantly, the idea of Blackness as tragedy in the fiction of American post-racial discourse.
As I have previously written, I am wary of White liberals. Even those who have read Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s Between The World and Me, or watch Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and Ava DuVernay‘s 13th while doing the electric slide with Tim Wise, who has been repeatedly accused of lifting words and intellectual ideas from Black activists and thinkers without proper citation.
As such, I was less concerned with the sea of White liberals that surrounded me as I watched Moonlight. This story is not theirs to tell, nor is it their story to discuss.
Indeed, White liberals are onlookers at what happens in the closed spaces within Black communities that have been wrecked and ruined by the War on Drugs, Reaganomics, and unrelenting anti-Black state violence. They aren’t at the center of this gorgeous story of Black sexuality, queer masculinities, and manhood. Nor are they the target audience for a tale that far exceeds any depiction of Black men as sexual beasts with rapacious lusts for White women or as “thugs” who rob and kill their own without any substantial examination of the pathologies that lead to crime.
The White liberal disrespect is not new
Moonlight gave us a fresh wind, and White liberals caught a whiff. I know because each time I watched it, I noticed Black folks, especially Black queer men, lingering in their seats—meditating and ruminating on what we had just witnessed. Meanwhile White folks scurried off without any tangible or easily identifiable connections to the beautiful and complex tableaux that had just been projected on the screen. They left with the same quickness as White women who clutch their purses or lock their car doors when they see Black men.
However, I think it important to consider what happened Sunday at the Oscars. The film–which based on a play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by a Black gay man named Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Barry Jenkins, a Black man, and edited by Joi McMillon, a Black woman who worked alongside Nat Sanders–was devastatingly disrespected by the Academy and its White liberal representatives.
But that disrespect is nothing new. It’s the same disrespect that many Black people experience from some Whites who believe they do not resemble racists. They are liberal, nice, and good. Blacks are told to be thankful that they aren’t as depraved as their counterparts.
Still, those same White liberals tried to hand the Best Picture Oscar to a forgettable White film. We have seen La La Land before—albeit in different iterations. Yet it is honored over and over again. Meanwhile, Moonlight in all its glory, nuance and complexity tells a singular story about Black life, Black childhood, Black boyhood, Black ‘hoods, Black sexuality, Black queerness, and Black masculinity.
Whites in La La Land
White liberals reward themselves for rehashing the same narratives. But Black artists are charged with telling new stories, told to rewrite the “stories,” or lies in the Black cultural sense; and to imagine and re-imagine a world where Black characters like Juan, Chiron and Teresa are free to live and have being.
After the La La Land cast accepted the Oscar for Best Picture, they quickly heard disorienting news from Jordan Horowitz, who stated emphatically, “No, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. There was a mistake. Moonlight won best picture. This is not a joke. Moonlight won best picture. I’m afraid they read the wrong thing. This is not a joke.”
The error very well may have been a human one–what is to be gained from humiliating the cast of La La Land? However, the moment was loaded. Considering how many times Black people lost out on something they so deserved, to watch it bestowed upon our folk in such a way, one could not help but to at least fantasize that Black Jesus and the ancestors snatched the honor back from the undeserving hands of White artists and placed it where it belongs.
But as others have noted, Black folks must question and critically assess the cultural significance of this honor, which comes from an institution that has a longstanding history of demonizing Black art and artists, and overlooking, if not invisibilizing, Black actors and actresses. We need not look too far. Just recall #OscarsSoWhite. Perhaps it is useful for us to pay close attention to Barry Jenkins’ words during his acceptance speech:
“You know, there was a time when I thought this movie was impossible, because I couldn’t bring it to fruition. I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story. And so everybody behind me on this stage said, ‘No, that is not acceptable.’ So I just want to thank everybody up here behind me. Everybody out there in that room. Because we didn’t do this. You guys chose us. Thank you for the choice. I appreciate it. Much love.”
The Academy and White liberals will continue to do what they do. And Black artists and Black people must do what we know best: We must choose us.
Ahmad Greene-Hayes is a doctoral student in the Departments of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He also currently serves as an inaugural cohort fellow of the Just Beginnings Collaborative (2016-2018), where his project, Children of Combahee works to eradicate child sexual abuse in Black churches. Follow him @_BrothaG.