Oscar Nominee Grapples with Toxic Masculinity

By Allison Estremera

On Jan. 24, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 89th Academy Awards. Among the big-budget, star-studded Hollywood blockbusters such as “La La Land” and “Arrival” was the indie film “Moonlight,” which garnered 8 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Made on a budget of $5 million and featuring no A-list actors in its ensemble, “Moonlight” stands as a testament to the power of storytelling in bringing visibility to the overwhelmingly invisible.    

A critical darling on the film festival circuit, “Moonlight” is far from the typical coming-of-age stories Oscar voters flock to every year. Based on the play “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film chronicles the life of Chiron at three different points during his childhood, teenage years and adulthood. Chiron learns from an early age the way in which appearance governs one’s place in society, as he faces constant bullying for not conforming to other people’s expectations of what a man should and should not be. While trying to find his own voice in a world that tries to force one upon him, he begins to develop feelings for his friend, Kevin. Caught between the path society has carved for him and staying true to himself, Chiron makes a series of decisions that forever alter the course of his life.    

The film does not hold back in its portrayal of topics such as the toxic masculinity African-American men grapple with and the homophobia it breeds, both of which are usually absent from both the Academy’s nominee list and mainstream films in general. Scriptwriter and Director Barry Jenkins addresses these issues in a way that illustrates how they create a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to break free, in addition to the consequences that those who question these societal norms face. Though the audience (and the film itself) may not always condone Chiron’s actions, Jenkins frames them in such a way that the viewer is aware of how the pressure to conform leads him to make the choices he does. While all people have experienced this pressure at one point or another, “Moonlight” illustrates how dangerous this supposedly natural phenomena is and what happens when it goes unchallenged as a tactic to mold people to the harsh realities of life.   

One of the film’s strongest points is its dedication to creating a realistic environment and characters. The cast as a whole delivers wonderfully subtle performances, bringing a unique life to each character, even when the audience finds themselves to be at moral odds with them. Though the film can be heartbreaking at times, it can just as quickly get a laugh from audiences, mirroring the way real life constantly shifts between its high points and low points.

This is also reflected in the film’s ending, as Jenkins presents the audience with an ambiguous final scene that is neither steeped in tragedy or a happily-ever-after. By choosing not to end on either extreme, the film succeeds in its attempt to capture the reality behind Chiron’s situation, as his dilemma is not one confined to the fantastic realm of movie scripts. “Moonlight” will no doubt go head to head with “La La Land” for the coveted Best Picture award this Oscar season, with the deciding factor being whether voters have their head in the clouds or their feet on the ground.      

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