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Moonlight: Was the Dark Horse Too Black For China?

For many of China's netizens, Academy Award winner Moonlight's success was not down to the quality of the film but the 'political correctness' of its subject. CINEMQ examines the disconnect between attitudes around queerness and race.

Watching Moonlight for the first time was cathartic. In the darkness of the night, in the flickering of the screen, an enduring, translucent blue enveloped me. The film tells the coming of age story of Chiron, from the nescience of his childhood through the agony of his teen years and the eventual solace of adulthood. Emotions marinade in its measured pace, like blue ripples on an ocean. Chiron floats in the waves, a lost boy washed in moonlight.

I felt great empathy for Chiron. Everyone can see a little bit of themselves in his story. Director Barry Jenkins brings him to life with impeccable technique and poetry. For me, Moonlight couldn’t have been more deserving of the Academy Award for Best Picture. But of course, no film can be loved by everyone. Different interpretations and perspectives reveal the true essence and value of a piece of art.

For many commentators in China, Moonlight’s win was controversial, and not because of the ceremony mix-up. I’ve noticed that many disapproving voices, without offering much explanation or analysis, have seen Moonlight’s success as nothing more than misplaced ‘political correctness.’

From top to bottom: "Things I dislike the most: Black people, ugly gays, and political correctness"; "Fuck political correctness"; "Great charity for black people[derogatory word]"

What could be more Oscar-bait than a story about gay black people? When Moonlight first appeared on everyone’s radar, there were comments that the production was purely opportunist. I was shocked by how quickly people reached this conclusion. Comparatively, LGBT themed films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Carol (2015) were celebrated by Chinese audiences. Where did their cynicism come from then?

From my observation, a considerable portion of people dismissing Moonlight as being “politically correct” haven’t even seen the film. They remark that the “obscure” subject matter steered them away instantly. Their logic seems to be: how did a film with such an ‘unpopular’ topic win Best Picture? As mentioned earlier, in conjunction with the fact that Brokeback Mountain and Carol received such acclaim here, what they’re really saying is: how could a film about black people be good enough to win?

I saw a picture of this year’s four acting award recipients on Weibo. Underneath, someone had commented, “this is what political correctness looks like”. I saw comments about how, “The Oscars this year are not very appealing since so many black people participated.” On Douban, others called the film, “ugly politics”. Chinese social media was littered with these comments. 12 Years A Slave provoked similar reaction in 2014. Cinematic representation of black lives and culture has become a space for people here to exercise their prejudices.

From top to bottom: "Political Correctness makes me barf"; "Annoying political correctness"; "Well! Black gays! Oscars is now official a political award".

Are we so ignorant? Discrimination thrives when one group of people deems lives of another to be distant and ‘unpopular.’ Without empathy, they repudiate the validity of life. The derisive phrase ‘Political correctness’ excuses their innate discrimination. When you other someone, your position is biased.

Moonlight’s lens focused on a minority, and whilst its story may not obviously reflect the audiences’ life experiences, this doesn’t make the film lesser. Cinema’s magnificence is in its ability to transcend the borders of our own lives. It allows us to see a wider world. Dismissing a film based on your prejudice is at least an insult to the art form.

Fellow Chinese netizens, “political correctness” is a term we have learned from Western media to generalise and oversimplify. It doesn’t elevate an argument, it masks ignorance. It disregards decades of struggle for civil rights and countless lives spent in making the world better. We should celebrate minority groups like LGBT black people stepping onto the stage, not sabotaging them. The fact that this year’s Oscars saw improved diversity is, to me, progress, and not a political compromise.

Barry Jenkins has said that he drew inspiration for Moonlight from his own experience growing up in the backwoods of Miami. The film is personal and authentic, not opportunistic. Its purpose is to take audiences on a distinctive journey with Chiron, to experience his pain, his endurance, and his growth. You may see an agenda, but I would contend that has more to do with you than with the film itself.

So let the film do its magic, don’t let so-called “politically correctness” eclipse a splendid piece of art. Please don’t gush with critiques you don’t understand. What you’re undermining is not just a film, but real, authentic and complete human lives.

Words: Xie Xiao

Translation: Will Dai



CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account.

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