There’s a reason why Moonlight (2016) won last night at the Oscars, even after the result was fudged up by Faye Dunaway and her old pal Warren Beatty did their best during the biggest blunder of the ceremonies 89 year history. Even before the result was corrected on the stage that saw the award go to La La Land (2016) I knew in my heart that it should have gone to admittedly the stronger of the two films – Moonlight. I’d like to use this as my argument for why it should and rightly so have been awarded Best Picture.
At first I wasn’t really fussed by seeing the film, know it was something special. It took reading and listening reviews for me to change my mind and check it out. A 3 act film that follows one Black guy from child to manhood, not so different on the surface they have been urban films before, but none that tackle homosexuality and so sensitively too. A social urban film that doesn’t play up to the stereotypes of African-Americans for a white audiences. Its story is ultimately human which has allowed it to transcend the barrier of colour. The humanity in La La Land’s restricted within the confines of a couple who are striving for their own dreams. Far more selfish than most those in Moonlight. Maybe it’s that we follow Chiron played by three different actors allowing us to spend so much time with him, it’s far more intimate.
La La Land is essentially a love letter to Hollywood by the machine that produced it, a musical that loves musicals. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, however it feels constructed with the intent to win votes for last night. I know that’s not the case, with a release and campaign doing that job for the film. With Moonlight the love is for the a hard-won emotion that Chiron who begins his journey with us under 10 as Little (Alex R. Hibbert) a cute and shy kid who has far more on his mind than most kids. Picked on for being different, but why is he different, at his tender age he begins to look in on himself to consider he maybe gay. Supported ironically by drug lord come mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) (who rightly won best supporting) who is the cause of Little’s mum Paula’s addiction. Herself played by a dazzling Naomie Harris who filmed her scenes in 3 days in between promotion for the latest Bond film.
You feel nothing but sympathy for Little’s struggle on the street, at school, at home and with his own identity. Finding strength in his young friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) who we follow also throughout Chiron’s life. All you want to do is reach into the screen and hug the little man who has so much to deal with and nowhere to turn. Juan is the only father figure in his life, who is not wanted by Paula as we later learn.
Moving onto high-school and we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes) the teenage Chiron whose grown slightly in confidence, yet still painfully shy. Still friends with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who will play a pivotal role in Black’s sexuality and future. As we have seen before in film, high-schools harsh world for some, filled with social pressures to conform as you leave childhood to become adult. You really get a sense of the angst that has been building up before it explodes after a fight on the playground that pits friends against each other. It’s nothing short of being a painful watch for the audience. In a way you see it coming, all the pent-up rage being unleashed after a moment of tenderness’s matched with one of betrayal before violence follows.
The final act sees an incredible transformation for Chiron (Ashton Sanders) who is now a drug dealer, beefed up and wearing bling to suit the life he has fallen into. On the surface it gives him power and confidence on the streets, no one questions him, the fear he can incite into those below him. It takes a few minutes to realise this is the same guy who we saw only moments ago. We are also bang-up-to-date in terms of period. La La Land does have a character transformation with that clever and controversial twist. Here in Streets of Atlanta, Georgia you could say Chiron has come full circle, taking on the role of his once father figure who took him under his wing. Yet its all a facade that takes one phone call and two visits to his mother and Kevin.
The last third sees everything come to a close, making sense of what has just happened, he’s come so far yet has not developed emotionally to have a romantic relationship, too insecure, too damaged by his past and his position prevents him from being truly happy. Very different to Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) who made personal sacrifices to fulfill the creative ambitions, their dreams come true at great cost to each other. In Miami and Georgia reality is against Chiron, his economic, family, social and sexual background are not in his favor. Its a much richer, human drama that wipes the floor with La La Land, which is a completely different film.
Now does this show a change in Oscar voting and ultimately American films, or is it simply a fluke that 3 Black films had prominent nominations in multiple catergories. For me, its a good start to see a much more varied mix of films to enjoy and celebrate, different stories to tell and share with audiences. It’s really too early to tell if this progress is here to stay or just simply lip service, lets hope this year sees more progress, more diversity whilst still exciting stories to
Its been a good few years since I’ve seen a Douglas Sirk film, personally preferring Nicholas Ray, complete with heightened emotion and high contrast colours. However a recent discussion about Sirk has rekindled an interest in the director of melodrama. Catching the other night Imitation of Life (1959), itself a remake of a Claudette Colbert 1934 film. What got my attention was the depiction of the black characters in the film. Namely Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) who willingly takes on the role of housekeeper whilst her white friend Lora Meridith (Lana Turner) goes after her dream of being a successful actress of the stage. The depiction seems too easy to work on the surface, to willingly dedicate your life to servitude, whilst being given lots of screen time. Playing the stereotypical African-American role at the time we see beyond all the wild southern accents of that era to have a character of substance (kind of).
Whilst Turner takes her in more out of friendship you can see this is her film. Looking at the billing Moore is second to last, making way for John Gavin whose only in a third of he film if that. Sadly the politics of race were far more subdued than they are today, where #OscarSoWhite was a movement for change for fairer representation at the recent Oscars, 50 years after this film had been released. Within this now archaic dynamic both are given dramatic roles to play with and Moore has plenty to chew on.
As I found with All that Heaven Allows (1955) there’s an issue at the heart of the film, the earlier about being in a relationship that breaks social order, a middle class woman falling for her Gardner. Here we have two themes going on within the black and white house where it’s not as cut and dry as the phrase wants us to believe. The aspiring actress who neglects her daughter, whilst the more doting mother is more protective of her mixed race child. Not as average as you first thought, this is Sirk after-all, taking issues and blowing them up in front of your face, with a touch of cinematic magic to draw you into these world of melodrama.
Split into two parts, the first a few years after the war, both mothers are finding it difficult coping alone and jobless, becoming friends and moving in after a chance encounter on the beach. Where we also meet aspiring photographer Steve Archer (Gavin). Everyone is aspiring to be more than they are, the top of the ceiling is out of reach as far as they’re concerned for the white people. Whilst its firmly in place foe Annie and her troubled daughter Sarah-Jane (Susan Kohner) who even in childhood would do anything to deny her mixed heritage that would stigmatise her throughout her life. As a child she would only want to be identified as white, not only a child of a single parent but one who is black made her situation more awkward than you’d experience today. Where her situation was still common, looked down-upon by society to be born out of marriage, mixed race was just icing on the cake of a bad situation. Of the two children we’re drawn towards the trouble Sarah-Jane who has a life-long fight ahead of her, compared to the still innocent and if I’m honest annoying.
Back in the adult world we have two single parents who as much as they want very different things, one supports the other. Lora aspiring to be an actress that takes her away from all she loves and matters in life. Leaving her friend Annie to bring up two girls, not just an unpaid maid but a nanny, doing all of this out of friendship and love. At first it was for a roof over her head. Only on the big screen could this happen, that love can equal or surpass the value of money and last so long without bad feelings developing. That’s not to say we don’t do things out of love, when the dynamic is very much of its time. Today you could possible see a flexible homosexual reading, living together, developing a love that is more than friendship, and able to lead their own lives for more than ten years together. In that time together Lora has become a big name on Broadway she has bought a big house in the country, all that money can buy and wear it too. Whilst Annie has stayed by her side through it all.
The daughters have grown up (practically adults) starting to explore, whilst Sarah-Jane’s pushing the boundaries, wanting to use her new found features to indentify herself as a white woman. Something that Annie wont allow, at the expense of pushing them apart. Unable to accept her position and heritage as part of her identity. This for me is the meat of the film, where the real drama is. We also have a daughter who has grown apart from her mother whose more concerned with fame. An image that we have seen throughout the history of film. There’s even potential for another Mildred Pierce (1945) daughter attempts to steal her mothers lover. It’s pale in comparison for the fight to be excepted by society for the colour of your skin.
Its a melodrama that is flawed but magnificently beautiful at the same time, its all there on the screen, the colour, emotion the big dreams and ambition to be more. Its a soap opera in the confines of a feature film running time that has dated in places sadly. We can see it as a product of its time that is a great vehicle for Turner who is enjoying the attention from the camera. I wonder what my next encounter with Sirk will bring.
- Imitation of Life (1934) vs Imitation of Life (1959) (the1000moviejourney.blogspot.co.uk)
- Conflict with Authority Manifested in Imitation of Life (1959) (eng3122.wordpress.com)
- ‘Imitation of Life’ (1934/1959) (studiesincinema.blogspot.co.uk)
- In authenticity: Douglas Sirk and the Sirkian Melodrama (filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.co.uk)
- IMITATION OF LIFE (1959) (daisysdeadair.blogspot.co.uk)