“La La Land” is forgettable. Yes, it will probably win best picture when the Oscars are handed out on February 26, because it’s practically designed for the Academy Awards. It’s a musical, it’s cute, it’s technically impressive, it flatters Hollywood. But I have yet to meet a fan of the movie (they are many and vocal, as “SNL” aptly parodied) who actually listens to the soundtrack, which when you think about it, opposes the entire logic of a musical.
It’s also a movie that looks backward. The classics it incessantly references (“Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) defined their genres. Gene Kelly perfected the art of singing and dancing on the big screen. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can barely sing and soft-shoe better than you and I can, and their characters’ conflicts (why aren’t you pursuing your dream instead of playing in a successful pop-jazz band?) are lame if not puzzling. “La La Land” rewards viewers who recognise what’s pretty and vintage, but it’s skin-deep.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Oscar best picture has gone to pat fluff (“Shakespeare in Love” comes to mind), but it comes at a critical time. “Moonlight,” a smaller film, has a decent chance of stealing the award, and I hope it does, because it’s a revolutionary movie in the middle of what might turn out to be a revolutionary moment in American history. Either way, it’s the nominee that will prove to be timeless.
From the outside, it’s easy to understand why “Moonlight” appeals to Oscar voters. The drama exposes the underbelly of an ignored and blighted corner of the US, and it demands that its extremely talented actors shout and cry a lot. It’s also, as critics rightfully point out, in the tradition of movies about the degradations of black life, like “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball.” The worst parts of the movie indulge in movie-of-the-week cliches about crackheads (the addict mum seemingly transforms out of nowhere by the end to deliver a final redemptive note).
But “Moonlight” is unique and life-affirming, even soul-cleansing, in a more fundamental way. This is a movie centered on a poor black man with gay desires that is not in any central way about being black, gay, or poor. The director and the writer of the play on which “Moonlight” is based — who are from the same housing projects in Liberty City, Miami, where it’s set — deeply understand how circumstances shape their main character, as we see through the gorgeous on-location shooting. (Anyone from Miami or the surrounding area, like I am, will feel the heat just watching.) But the quiet, stunning revelation of the movie is that this poor black man with gay desires can’t be pinned down to any of those things. We watch him define his own identity, on his own terms.
We’re in the early days of a president who recently described the conditions of largely black urban centres as “terrible.” Words like those have long been used to strip away the inherent humanity of black Americans. We’ve made a lot of racial progress in 2017, but we’re also a country, as research shows, that increasingly self-sorts into communities of people who think and act like us, and who confirm our view of the world.
“Moonlight” scrambles that problem. It’s audaciously and ingeniously structured in three parts, in which we see the main character in starkly different stages of his life (he’s named Little, Chiron, and Black) that are still undeniably linked. The last chapter shows Black, after a traumatic childhood and having moved away, inhabiting the image of a hard black man we’ve come to accept from pop culture. But then we see more — the wonder of Little, the tenderness and insecurity of Chiron. We see how this man has gradually shuffled through identities to find which one is really his.
The ending of “Moonlight” hinges on Black’s romantic reunion with a childhood friend that is and isn’t what you expect based on a million Hollywood romances. They make awkward small talk, there’s the gesture of intimacy in a hot meal, a soul song on the jukebox.
But we’ve never seen two black men reuniting like this in a major American movie before. That’s not just tokenism. Their interaction is palpably real, and about much more than sex. It’s the recognition of two people who know each other so well that they could never forget, no matter how many years they have been apart or how much they have superficially changed. They see each other for who they really are, when hardly anyone else does. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen portrayed on a big screen.
And that recognition of one man’s individual humanity and connection in “Moonlight” can help us understand how we look at each other, too. The movie resists the idea that we’re defined by our colour, sexuality, community, education, income, or even politics, even while those things determine so much about our lives. Its blissful lesson is that we’re all just trying to find out who we are and understand each other — and perhaps we can, if we really try.
That’s something worth celebrating in 2017 or any other year.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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