Moonlight’s Oscar win for Best Picture has refocused attention on LGBT visibility in mainstream cinema. It is the first film with an explicitly gay theme and a central gay protagonist to win Best Picture after a series of near misses over the years, most notably the defeat of Brokeback Mountain at the hands of Crash in 2006. (Nevertheless, Ang Lee won Best Director that year for helming a profoundly moving tale about the thwarted love between two cowboys.)
To be sure, LGBT roles have been amply rewarded by the Academy in the past. Tom Hanks won Best Actor in 1994 for Philadelphia, a harrowing drama about an HIV-positive gay man battling workplace homophobia. In 2000, Hillary Swank won Best Actress for Boys Don’t Cry, in which she played a transgender man who becomes the victim of a hate crime.
In 2009, Sean Penn won Best Actor for playing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California back in 1977. And in 2014, Jared Leto won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the transgender Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, which charts the story of an early AIDS patient who smuggled HIV drugs from Mexico into Texas due to the unavailability of those drugs in the US.
While Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and other such Oscar winners are centred on LGBT themes, actors who played gay characters without the storyline being gay have also taken home Oscars. In 2003, Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for The Hours, a meditative drama about the interconnected lives of three women of different generations. Kidman played the writer Virginia Woolf, who was rumoured to be bisexual, and the film nods at her alternative sexuality in subtle fashion.
The very next year, Charlize Theron won Best Actress for portraying lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. In 2006, Philip Seymour Hoffman picked up the Best Actor Oscar for playing Truman Capote, the gay writer, in Capote. The Academy, thus, has been amenable to bestowing Oscar glory on LGBT films and characters, but the sort of films that have won are mostly political dramas that advocate greater acceptance of LGBT folk by pointing to the tormenting effects of homophobia and social ostracism.
Moonlight, the story of a gay black man through three stages in his life, is a roundly different beast. Its protagonist Chiron faces schoolyard bullying that emerges from his “difference”. But the film is primarily about the sheer strain of being gay, of leading a life in the shadows, not because society shuns you but because you harbour a secret that, no matter how egalitarian the world becomes, is so potent and intrinsic that it marks you. What Chiron experiences is not shame exactly – and the film makes the effort to delineate that it is not – but a constant negotiation that colours his gestures and his self-image.
Moonlight is, thus, a far more subversive film than those unequivocally political dramas that have failed to scoop the big prize. The Academy works in mysterious ways, but its championing of a film that masterfully evokes the exhausting interiority of gayness has arrived not a moment too soon.