Oh: Barry Jenkins’ thoughtful approach to ‘Moonlight’ illustrates importance of reflective, diverse storytelling

Louis Oh, Op-Ed Contributor

Last weekend Barry Jenkins — director of this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, “Moonlight” — came to speak on campus. Like quite a few of you, I was there. The event started with a screening of the film. It was my second time seeing it. Again, I soaked myself in the imaginative compositional flow, the carefully evocative sounds, the emotional density of silence, the raw vulnerability of its characters, the tender connections between its actors. Like with any great film, the repeated viewing left me with even more.

I was reminded of why, despite expecting “La La Land” to win best picture, in my heart I still rooted for “Moonlight.” For a brief moment my expectations had been met. As “La La Land” was announced winner of the night, its cast and crew took to the stage and nearly finished speeches before the historic mixup was revealed. Against the odds, and in the craziest way anyone could imagine, “Moonlight” won best picture. I loved “La La Land,” and saw it multiple times as well, but this was a different sort of triumph.

I remember feeling lost for words leaving the theater after seeing “Moonlight” the first time around, deeply entranced by Little/Chiron/Black (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes). The emotional intimacy Jenkins, and his cast and crew, elicits with the audience was powerful. Perhaps this is why, as Jenkins later remarked in his discussion at Northwestern, the film gained so much traction despite its limited release. For me, one of the best results of the film’s Oscar win is that it will receive an extra distribution push in otherwise unlikely places, like Korea where I grew up. Perhaps, through the sheer force of the art, “Moonlight” could pry open a few hearts and minds in a country that still tends to deny homosexuality and is inundated with racism and colorism.

As I listened to Jenkins speak in the Q&A after the screening, it became clear to me that this beauty and tender power stemmed from how intensely Jenkins cared about and respected the story. Jenkins revealed that while his own influences very much manifested themselves in the film, more importantly, it was inherently a projection of playwright Tarell McCraney’s work, an unpublished semi-autobiographical script upon which the film was adapted. Jenkins spoke of the authenticity of lived experience. He recognized the limits of telling the story of a gay, black man’s self-reconciliation as a straight, black man. Deeply aware of this, he worked closely with McCraney, who eventually concluded their remote collaboration with trust that Jenkins would truly tell their story. It becomes clear in the craftsmanship that the director sought to do right. I am neither black nor gay, but perhaps this is why I left the theater so impacted, so enraptured by a story nothing like my own. I believe it was for many of you, too.

However, all of this stood as a stark contrast to another side of the industry I was seeing. The weeks prior to this event had been particularly frustrating and disheartening in terms of entertainment for Asian Americans like me. Marvel’s “Iron Fist” on Netflix and Scarlett Johansson’s “Ghost in the Shell,” a film adaptation of classic manga and anime, have garnered wide criticism. Choices made in these productions displayed what seems more like superficial infatuation of the aesthetic of Asian culture rather than deep respect and cultural competence. They lacked care and sensitivity. Instead, they were full of disappointing excuses. Should it be to anyone’s surprise that they both had little popular or critical acclaim? I do not mean to suggest that an Asian protagonist will undoubtedly lead to box office success. However, perhaps such mishandlings and under-representations of Asian identities and culture are indicative of a general insufficiency of care and respect for the stories they mean to tell.

So many of us here at Northwestern are budding storytellers in one way or another: theater and Radio, Television and Film majors in the School of Communication, journalism majors like myself, creative writers and art majors in Weinberg, and anyone else with a passion for storytelling. I do not mean to bar any of you from engaging in and telling stories deriving from my or anyone else’s culture. Like Jenkins said, we dreamt and told great stories of space travel long before it was realized (and no filmmaker is also an astronaut, yet). If anything, more stories about people beyond white men wait desperately to be told. But please, I ask that you approach it with all the care and love you can muster for those of whom the elements you borrow are their reality.

Louis Oh is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.