So, the Oscars were on Sunday. I actually thought this year was pretty good, without any major snubs or undeserving winners. In particular, I am very happy that Moonlight won the coveted Best Picture award, and I’ll try to explain why in this post. If you’re not ready to move on from awards season just yet, keep reading.
Moonlight is notable for many reasons: it was the first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture, Joi McMillon, the editor, became the first black woman to be nominated for Best Editing, and Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win any acting Oscar. And it may be a watershed for LGBT representation in film.
Moonlight is the first movie to win Best Picture with queer characters who survive the film. It is also one of the few Oscar-nominated films with queer characters that don’t involve death in some way. That fact is more notable when you learn just how many queer characters have been nominated for Oscars, and how many of those characters have not survived.
The earliest example of a queer character being recognized by the Academy is Rebecca, 1940’s winner for Best Picture. Judith Anderson nabbed a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of the villainous housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, as close to an out lesbian as one could find in the era of the restrictive Hays Code. With her death by ceiling at the end of the film, Hollywood’s pattern with queer characters was established. The monstrous coded gay killer would be seen and thwarted again and again in movies like Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951).
It wouldn’t be until 1968, after the end of the Hays Code, that a positive portrayal of coded queer characters was recognized by the Academy. Daniel Massey’s only nomination was for his portrayal of Noël Coward in Star!. Coward was private about his sexuality throughout his life and was not out when Star! was made, but was romantically involved with other men and exhibited some flamboyant characteristics associated with gay men.
The first movie to win Best Picture with confirmed queer characters is Midnight Cowboys (1969), the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture. This movie was rated X for its depiction of gay men. Queer stories, especially gay stories would only increase through the 70s and 80s, but queer characters were still relegated to being villains or sidekicks. Al Pacino was nominated for playing attempted bank robber Sonny Wortzik in 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, while Cher was nominated for playing the lesbian roommate of the title character in 1983’s Silkwood. The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s led to more tragic characters, such as Longtime Companion (1989) and Philadelphia (1993), the latter earning Tom Hanks his first Oscar for Best Actor.
And still, queer characters are stereotyped, now as sidekicks or tragic, doomed figures. The next film centered on a queer character who survives the film and isn’t an immoral villain was Transamerica (2005). Felicity Huffman received a nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of a trans woman looking for her long-lost son. This peak of queer representation was somewhat overshadowed by Brokeback Mountain (2005), the tragic love story between two men that was nominated for 8 Oscars that same night, including a Best Picture nod.
Even with increasing visibility and gains for the LGBT rights movement in recent years, these same stereotypes exist. The Imitation Game (2014), a film about the life of Alan Turing, pioneering computer scientist and informal namesake of the UK law posthumously pardoning men convicted of homosexuality, was nominated for 8 awards and criticism for its portrayal of Turing’s romantic relationship with fellow female scientist Joan Clake. At least Imitation Game won an award for its queer content in Best Adapted Screenplay. The next year, Alicia Vikander received the only award of the night for The Danish Girl (2015) for her portrayal of the cisgender wife of trans woman Lili Elbe, who dies at the movie’s end. Meanwhile, Carol (2015), a quiet period piece about the love between two women, was snubbed in all 6 of its nominations, not even receiving a Best Picture nod.
This finally brings me to why Moonlight is so important and why I hope it brings more movies like it to mainstream attention. Moonlight is a movie about the life of a queer man and, at the end of the film, that life is not over. He’s not gunned down as retribution for his villainy. Nor does he go quietly into that good night, poignantly wasting away from AIDS or complications and giving straight audiences a tearjerker ending to a sad life. Even further, Moonlight characterizes him as a real person. Chiron isn’t some squealing stereotype to be shunted into the background. He seems like someone you could know in your life or, at the very least, meet somewhere and talk to.
I want to clarify myself to prepare for the inevitable straw men. No, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with queer villains, although we tend to see those characters’ sexuality played up as either a cause of their evil or an outward manifestation of it, i.e. they are evil so they act either sleep with the same sex or behave stereotypically queer. And no, I don’t think that writing a queer character’s death is inherently bad either. Death is an important part of storytelling for many reasons, and it would be wrong to exclude queer characters from having that kind of weight in the story. But, it is something of a problem when the majority of queer characters who are critically acclaimed wind up dead by the end of that story.
And this gets into the fundamental conundrum with representation. Why does it matter how LGBT characters are portrayed in film? Well, especially in the current political climate, real-life LGBT people are in a considerable amount of danger. There is no legal protection in the US for LGBT people against discrimination in the workplace (17 states), housing discrimination (28 states), and hate crimes (19 states). LGBT people are especially vulnerable to hate crimes and mental health problems like depression and addiction. And now, these individuals, especially trans individuals, are worried about basic civil rights protections being taken away from them, rendering them less free than their straight counterparts.
This is why Moonlight is so important and why we need more movies like it. It allows people to see what queer individuals are really like. They aren’t repressed and deranged killers, they aren’t one-note stereotypes, and they aren’t doomed, tragic figures. They are real people with real lives. And it’s time to show the world why these lives are worth protecting.
Anyone interested in further reading on queer representation at the Oscars should look at these pages. They really inspired this piece.