Too Black and Queer: On Moonlight and the Audacity of White Fuckery

Barry Jenkins, foreground center, and the cast accept the award for best picture for "Moonlight" at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

I don’t usually watch award shows not centered around Black people. I honestly don’t care to watch white people fawn over each other as they get up the hopes of Black artists, actors, writers and directors only to remind them and the rest of us that white mediocrity usually trumps Black genius in their eyes. For me, their accolades mean nothing. I love the work of Black performers independent of whether the Grammys or Oscars acknowledge and reward their talent.

I’m not in show business though, so as much I may want Denzel or Viola or BeyoncĂ© to say “fuck it” and opt out of attending awards shows, I understand that if my people are forced to eat at the same table as white supremacy, however romantic and ill-advised considering history, they should expect to be recognized for their contributions. I root for my favorite players even when I refuse to sit in the arena. Cognitive dissonance is the name of the game.

Last night was no different. I had no intention of watching the Oscars only to be disappointed that none of my favorites received their just due. It happened with Quvenzhane a few years back. It happened again with Selma in 2015. I tuned in just to see Wallis and Duvernay take the stage and cry giving their acceptance speeches, ready to tear up for them, and white people did what white people do.

But for once, there were some pleasant surprises. I sat eating one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant in Manhattan with my son and husband as the Oscars aired. I looked up to see an emotional Mahershala Ali accepting an award for Best Supporting Actor for his breathtaking performance in Moonlight. I smiled. He deserved it. Later, Black Twitter confirmed that Viola Davis’ ascension to superstardom continued with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her critically acclaimed role in Fences. The Oscars seemed to be getting it right this year.

And then, as white people and white supremacy always do, the Oscars started pulling stunts that reminded me why I’m always cynic when it comes to them. First, Denzel Washington lost out to Casey Affleck for Best Lead Actor. Now if you know me, I believe Denzel losing any acting award to anybody is a grave injustice, and I didn’t see Afleck’s film, so I couldn’t start flipping tables from that. But the nail in the “white people stay white peopling” coffin came when Moonlight —  a film so important, so innovative, so masterful — lost picture of the year. Except it didn’t.

My timeline erupted with “WTF” commentary that our contender had lost. The piece on how Moonlight was too Black and queer — not one or the other but both — to ever be named Best Picture had already begin writing itself if my head. I was going to let this keyboard and white feelings have it. Then redemption came. I guess…

It turned out that Moonlight actually had won the biggest award of the night. After the cast and crew of La La Land took the stage to accept the award, not one but three procedures giving short speeches, one of the producers announced there had been a mixup. Host Jimmy Kimmel, no stranger to white fuckery (think him crying over Cecil the Lion while his tear ducts remained inactive over the Black bodies that fell like leaves at the same time), confirmed the mistake, saying, “Guys, this is very unfortunate, what happened. Personally, I blame Steve Harvey for this. I would like to see you get an Oscar, anyway. Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of them?”

Don’t you just love when zany little mixups like that happen? Who wouldn’t be amused by it all? What says “gotcha” like reading the wrong card? It’s totally believable that it was just a mistake since Moonlight and La La Land are practically the same, right?

I ask this question in all seriousness though I know the answer: Is there no limit to white audacity? Even if I am to believe that this was an honest flub, Kimmel’s response, questioning why all the movies couldn’t win, was one of the most patently white moments in TV history.

How fucking dare he? So instead of immediately and profusely apologizing to the cast and crew of the film that actually won, showing immediate and absolute remorse for Barry Jenkins and his team having their moment overshadowed by this “mistake,” Kimmel takes the opportunity to minimize the cultural and cinematic significance of Moonlight by wondering why the white folks couldn’t just share in the moment. After all, it’s not as if white people ever receive accolades and the spotlight at these award shows.

What harm could there be in questioning why a film exploring what it means to be a Black queer man isn’t more important than the 1209th film about two white ass people finding a “once in a lifetime” love? Surely Black art, which has been reduced, overlooked, diminished and ignored as practice should be grateful for any recognition even that which is prorated, right? Black people had received more than enough that night. Can’t have America thinking that maybe the problem all along hasn’t been a lack of Black talent but rather an abundance of white mediocrity misnomered as white supremacy.

Though I am elated for the Barry Jenkins and overjoyed to watch my Black queer friends gush about their representation, as always, white fuckery soured this moment. For the next few days, Moonlight will have to split headlines with the film that lost, La La Land being mentioned first in the headlines I’ve seen. The producers of the movie that didn’t win still got to take the stage. The movie was still honored and acknowledged for excellence. La La Land actually didn’t lose last night. It was an underserving winner.

But Moonlight, as is typical, particularly when Blackness that does not quite fit the performance Hollywood and America believes it should, was too great not to acknowledge and too radical to fully laud. It was crucial in it’s exploration of coming to terms with sexuality and normalizing queer love. That part is useful to white America, or at least a subset large enough to matter. They can copy, seek inspiration from, modify and commodify certain elements of the protagonist’s journey for their own purposes. So for that reason, Moonlight is a worthy tale.

That other part, which actually cannot be severed from the former any more than tea can be separated from water once it has been made, that uncomfortable, multi-dimensional, painful and joyous representation of Blackness, they cannot

relate to or employ. As such, the acknowledgement was like their processing of the film, half-hearted and incomplete. And as such, like it was before Moonlight’s win, my faith that institutions of whiteness will ever wholly, honestly and rightfully acknowledge the Black genius that it must deny in order to feign competition is non-existent.

 

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