Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Color Purple’

Silly me: Of course you people were going to choose the most recognizable names on my quick poll to pick a pair of queer movies to write about.

I knew I wanted to bump up the diversity of my subjects, so most of the films I put in the poll (all but Bound) featured BIPOC characters: Quinceanera, Big Eden, Bessie, Two Spirits, Brother to Brother and the winners — Moonlight and The Color Purple. All but the top two were films I’d only seen once, generally several years ago, or not at all — so they’ll just go on the list next year.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining that I got to watch these two films again, Moonlight because it’s just such a beautiful experience, and The Color Purple because it was well overdue for a rewatch — and possibly a reconsideration.

Three-plus years on, I’m still shocked that Moonlight won Best Picture in what’ll hopefully be the weirdest Oscar snafu of my lifetime.

My shock wasn’t — and isn’t — just at the jaw-dropping craziness of the envelope fuck-up. I’m still stunned that a tiny, Black, queer, indie drama like Moonlight won. If you know me or have at least glanced at the archives of this blog, you know I’m an Oscar obsessive, but I’m not so blind to think that the Academy doesn’t get it wrong all too often — not just in the films that win, but in the films that don’t even get nominated.

That a searingly personal coming-of-age drama about a young Black man broke through into the awards circuit is miracle enough. The ways the film speaks about race and masculinity and sexuality and isolation aren’t common enough in pop culture, and they don’t often get the Oscar imprimatur.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins, who adapted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, brings a shattering amount of humanity to these characters — the kind of people whose humanity is so often overlooked in film (drug dealers, addicts — young Black kids in general, for that matter). That’s even more true of a young gay boy growing up in a hypermasculine society. This observation by critic Charles Bramesco nails it: “Throughout (Chiron’s) boyhood, adolescence and young adulthood — respectively portrayed by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, three actors seemingly working from a single mind — he figures out how to make his way through a world that doesn’t know what do with him by keeping his mouth shut.”

As powerful as Jenkins’ work in developing the characters is, it’s equalled by his lush visuals, which let these beautiful people fill the screen in gorgeously lit, tight closeups that juxtapose intriguingly with the darker turns in the story. You expect an indie drama about social issues to have a more documentary feel, but Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton go in the opposite direction.

I’ve probably seen Moonlight a half-dozen or more times since first catching it in Lubbock in 2016, and I never fail to come away inspired by its righteous empathy. If you haven’t seen it yet, or if it’s been a while, there’s no better time than now.

It had been several years since I’ve seen The Color Purple, in fact, though I bought a special-edition Blu-ray a couple of years ago. I’ve been meaning to give it a rewatch since seeing the brilliant musical on Broadway in 2016, but I just never did get around to it until now.

I saw her, y’all.

I was pretty anxious about it, honestly. I know that the film has come under some significant critical reexamination since its original release in 1985, when it was hailed by many critics and scored a sensational 11 Oscar nominations (though it went home empty-handed). In particular, I know that Steven Spielberg’s helming of the project has been especially scrutinized.

Seeing the film in theaters as a kid was a significant moment in my development as a burgeoning cinephile. I remember knowing that it was an “important” film, so I was happier than the average 12-year-old white boy to see it. I also definitely remember picking up on the sotto voce lesbian plot and wanted to know more — not in a prurient way, obviously, but in a same-recognizes-same kind of way. That’s why I kept sneaking into my dad’s home office and swiping the book, which was one of the rare books that was strictly forbidden to me (like I was going to turn out to be a lesbian or something).

I didn’t recognize then, but I certainly see now, how Spielberg softened a lot of the story’s edges, turning an often dark, challenging book into mainstream entertainment. That’s not ideal — Moonlight proves that a complex story can break through to wider audiences — but given its era (and its director), I’m not surprised. I’m more disappointed than ever, though, to see how much they watered down the love story between Celie and Shug.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself still affected by Celie’s story. Whoopi Goldberg’s performance is still an amazing achievement, as is Oprah Winfrey’s debut performance as the force-of-nature Sophia.

What I didn’t remember was all the tonal weirdness surrounding the men. Like, we know Mister (Danny Glover) is the villain and does some absolutely heinous things to Celie, but why are there some scenes played for laughs, like when Celie chortles about his ineffectual attempts to clean up to see Shug Avery (Margaret Avery)? Or the weirdly happy music that underscores the scene where Mister tells his son, Harpo, to take Sophia “down a peg or two.”

I am curious to hear from my Black friends and readers how this film stands up for them. In doing some reading over the last day or so, I understand that it still has deep resonance for many, though it still has a complicated legacy. I’d love to hear more, because I know my own perspective is limited.

Up next: The Miseducation of Cameron Post and But I’m a Cheerleader

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