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Moonlight's empowering message opens dialogue about 'black male masculinity'

Last Updated Feb 27, 2017 at 8:37 pm EDT

A major mix-up on the Oscar stage on Sunday night overshadowed what likely would have been the biggest headline today: an important film achieving a monumental win.

For those who identify as black and queer, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” being awarded Best Picture was about more than just the golden statue.

“It allows us to really have conversations about black male masculinity,” says Kimahli Powell, Executive Director of Rainbow Railway, a group dedicated to getting persecuted LGBT people to safety internationally.

“Moonlight” centres around a young black man in Miami coming to terms with his own sexuality. The film follows him through three defining stages of his life. “This goes out to all the those black and brown boys and girls, and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves,” said Tarell Alvin McCraney during his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay. “We are trying to show you you and us. So thank you, thank you. This is for you.”

For queer black actors like Toronto-based Sedina Fiati, the message was received. She says the film is a refreshing departure from the usual stories reserved for black people. “We see the same representations and stereotypes of people over and over again, and it makes us believe those things are true,” she says. “We need layers. We need complexities. And a film like “Moonlight” really showed that.”

Fiati says the film also shines a spotlight on a group often left out of storytelling. “We’ve seen a lot of representations I think of queer people in the media, but not as many of black queer people, not as many of say South Asian queer people and I think we need to see them because these people exist.”

For some, just existing can be dangerous. “Unfortunately, too many Caribbean countries have anti-gay legislation that puts people at risk,” says Powell. “That does reflect sometimes a culture in the diaspora here, and in other countries, where gay black youth do not feel safe within their communities to be who they are by fear of violence, by fear of persecution, by fear of stigmatization.”

Powell hopes seeing more stories like “Moonlight” in the mainstream can help people understand the daily challenges faced by black gay youth.

“What’s powerful about “Moonlight” is it provides possibilities,” he says. “If someone can see themselves on screen, if an award can be celebrated by a billion people internationally, then there’s hope. It’s a little harder to stigmatize someone who is visible.”