The two best films of 2016 won big at Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony: Moonlight and La La Land.
I found both movies to be profoundly touching and transcendent — not to mention exhilaratingly entertaining. And both films hit me in ways that were completely surprising.
Of the two, Moonlight is the film I’d be expected to say I identify the most with, and perhaps that is true. It’s the story of Chiron (or Little or Black, whichever you prefer), a young Black man growing up in Miami’s Liberty City projects. From the get-go it’s clear that Chiron is an outsider. He’s picked on, tormented, bullied until the dam finally bursts and he exacts retribution on his main tormentor. Love is a luxury rarely afforded to Chiron, but it does come in a couple of unexpected forms.
First, there’s local drug kingpin Juan and his wife Teresa, played with sincerity and warmth by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae. They offer Chiron refuge from his crack-addled mother (an affecting Naomie Harris), a safe space, so to speak. Juan teaches Chiron life lessons, which would later help shape Chiron into a man. And then there’s Chiron’s only friend Kevin, with whom he experiences an intense moment of sexual intimacy on a serene stretch of Miami Beach. This latter moment causes many to label Moonlight as a “gay movie” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), but really this film is an exploration of Black masculinity and an indictment of the stereotypical groupings in which most Black men are placed. As Keegan-Michael Key once said in a Key & Peele sketch: “We are not a monolith!”
And that’s the thing: I can certainly relate to the character of Chiron. I grew up in an era when intelligence was not necessarily celebrated or appreciated, and my nerdy, quirky, honor roll-achieving ass was often excluded. I was an outside, an other. Watching the trials Chiron had to endure over the course of Moonlight — including a quest for love, for genuine affection — was like looking into a mirror of my own life. As I posted on Facebook, when I left the theater, I felt as if I had been punched in the chest and had the wind knocked out of me. I gotta give props to screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins. He made a film that took my entire 20-minute walk home from the theater to recover.
Now, having said all that, I was equally surprised by how much La La Land resonated with me. Sure, sure, I’d read all the reviews. And yeah, yeah, all my industry peeps, who’d seen the film in the weeks prior, raved and gushed over it. But I wasn’t really all that hyped. With few exceptions, I don’t like movie musicals. I didn’t care for Ryan Gosling. I was just like … meh.
But from the film’s opening moments I was hooked. La La Land starts with an amazing musical number on a Los Angeles freeway — a real fucking freeway, not a soundstage or green-screened studio — and ends with a 15-minute denouement that’s equal parts bittersweet and satisfying. It’s a true tour de force from writer/director Damien Chazelle, and I fully expect great things from him in the future.
Now some would like to accuse the film of whitewashing, and that’s a pretty ridiculous fucking claim, but what really struck me about La La Land was its sense of optimism. “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem,” co-star Emma Stone sings at one point. La La Land is for those who dream, for those who seemingly sacrifice all to make those dreams a reality. And that’s kinda where I am in life. A crossroads at which I need to decide what I’m going to do next: Play it safe, or pursue the dream? La La Land makes a strong case for the latter. Why, you ask? Because it’s possible.
Again, I hadn’t expected to enjoy La La Land as much as I did, nor did I think its message would resonate with me in such a powerful way. But I was proven wrong and shown, once again, the power of the movies.
And that’s why I want to be in the movie business. To tell the stories of those who are unable to. To inspire those who feel less than.
The two best films of 2016 were Moonlight and La La Land, and both films affected me in ways I had not expected. Moonlight touched upon my past, and La La Land is very much about my future.
I encourage you all to see both.