Our movies, ourselves: The Oscars invariably reflect the American zeitgeist. This year’s ceremony is no exception, especially given its topsy-turvy ending in which the presumed winner unexpectedly loses.
La La Land had been the clear favorite of the four top contenders for best picture. It’s the type of film Hollywood always loves because it’s about—well, Hollywood. It’s also been welcomed as an escape from the dismal reality of the current political landscape. Deliverance comes through saturated colors and a love story about attractive people who don’t sing and dance all that well. La La Land embodies the American fantasy that life works out if you follow your dreams.
Hidden Figures, too, is a feel-good narrative, depicting three brilliant African-American women who endured racism and sexism at NASA in the early years of the space program. The film is a bridge between the sheer escapism of La La Land and the more depressing realities depicted in Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Set in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures almost tricks us into believing that individual grit matters more than institutional oppression, and that the days of rank prejudice are behind us. These wishes, too, are part of our national fantasy. But as Faulkner and the recent election remind us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This theme is woven throughout Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. While La La Land and Hidden Figures offer escape (and very little back story), these two films are in the clutches of trauma. Neither Chiron, of Moonlight, nor Lee, from Manchester, can escape the past.
Chiron, a sensitive young, gay, black boy born into poverty to a crack-addicted mother, grows into a hardened drug dealer. He is a broken survivor who nonetheless finds a bit of peace and tenderness.
Lee is also broken, but barely surviving. He is not born into trauma, but causes one that quickly engulfs him. Lee can escape the town—at least until his brother’s death forces him back–but not the guilt and harm he’s inflicted on himself and others.
Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea do not feel good. But they feel honest. They affirm the harder truths: Some damage cannot be undone. Triumphant Hollywood endings are rare. There is no escaping the past. Yet revisiting it and coming to terms with it—as Chiron chooses, as Lee must, as we do in our everyday lives—creates small shifts, more understanding, and perhaps a tender cradling or a little extra room where none existed before.
Which film were you rooting for?