Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: ‘Moonlight’ shines through all the shade

It feels like “Moonlight” has broken my heart every other beat for the past few months. I was delirious when I reserved seats for an advance screening, hence my friend and I making it to the ticket-taker at Atlantic Station’s Regal 16 before I looked at the printout and realized we were supposed to be at the AMC 14 at Phipps Plaza.

By the time we arrived at Phipps, there was a line of about 100 people with “reservations” trying to get into the already full theater. The dejection I felt that night was mild compared to how my spirit sank upon walking in the theater when the movie opened in Atlanta a week later.

Given the overflow crowd at the screening, along with the excitement saturating my social media feeds, I braced myself to search for bad seating when my friend and I walked in the theater as the previews were starting. But there were only about a dozen people in the seats, plus a similar number who trickled in during the first act of the movie.

It hurt that so few people might hear such a poignant message, that an artistic statement you were passionately anticipating was of no concern to most people, because most people aren’t all that aware of, or interested in, the experience of black gay men.
Every scene and storyline of “Moonlight” rocked my soul during that initial viewing, in the categories featured at awards shows, and the familiar crises that mirrored elements of my adolescence and young adulthood. The emotions were as powerful each time I took a new set of friends to the theater, and the seats were just as sparsely filled.

Although I didn’t measure the film’s worth by its box office draw, it was disappointing to realize that there would be no “Brokeback”-level buzz among mainstream LGBT media and culture, and that the movie would go unseen by a majority of black folks who posted about #OscarSoWhite earlier in the year. In that way, “Moonlight” was an apt metaphor for how black gay men are ignored by both those communities, let alone broader society.

It’s now symbolic of larger disconnects after the snafu during the Best Picture presentation at the Oscars, which seemed to be a dramedy of incompetence rather than a racist conspiracy to undermine black gay excellence. Still, black gay excellence – the first all-black cast, and the first LGBT-themed movie to rise to the top of the industry – was undermined and overshadowed, with news reports starting with details of the onstage chaos, then transitioning to the individual awards won by “La La Land,” while a segment of black folks bemoan Hollywood celebrating the supposed emasculation of black manhood.

Through it all, “Moonlight” stands as Best Picture, filling my heart anew every other beat.