Posted on Mar 21, 2017 | No Comments
Moonlight, Lemonade, and Experimental Filmmaking

And the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture is… La La Land. As I heard this announcement, I was struck by a profound disappointment. Then, an astonishing thing happened, the wrong name had been called and Moonlight was announced as the real winner. Giving awards is a subjective process and La La Land certainly was a strong contender, but technically speaking, Moonlight is a superior film. In the week following the Oscars, many publications contrasted this outcome to the Grammy Awards where Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” infamously lost out to Adele’s “25” for Album of the Year. In a parallel situation, the battle had been set between the well-regarded establishment choice and an innovative masterwork by a black artist. When Adele took to the stage to accept the award, she voiced what many people were thinking, that “Lemonade” deserved the win over “25.”

Awards should not be considered as the primary marker for success of an artistic work, but they do have a significant impact on the artist’s reach and the work’s distribution. These recent parallel events tie in to a larger discussion of race in our nation. Especially in today’s political climate, it’s vital to celebrate diversity, but it’s also important to give credit where its due. Both “Lemonade” and Moonlight are moving artworks that deserve recognition for their excellence. Music and films like these push boundaries and expose the wider population to new ways of thinking. They expand our world views by giving a voice to underrepresented communities.

The world needs artists who show the truth of the human experience in every corner. As a white girl from Southern California, it stands to reason that I have experienced more events in my life that relate to the characters in La La Land than Moonlight. I grew up taking it for granted that women from my demographic would be presented on screen for me to look up to (if not always portrayed in empowering ways). Moonlight and “Lemonade” exposed me to worlds that I would have no point of reference for otherwise, and for that I am grateful. More importantly, they provide representation for their communities and work through shared collective experiences.

Moonlight pulls you in to the impoverished neighborhoods of Miami as it exposes the harsh reality many people face growing up around drugs, violence, and the ever-impending probability of incarceration. The film utilizes several unexpected techniques including sparse dialogue, a haunting classical music score, and vibrant camera work with lots of movement. As a result of these techniques, it doesn’t tell you the story, you experience it with the characters. The most recognizable scene from the film takes place when an unexpected mentor teaches the film’s protagonist, Chiron, how to swim. This scene resonates emotionally as you see the neglected young boy finally experience a moment of fatherly love. The emotion of the scene is heightened by stunningly beautiful filming techniques as the camera undulates above and below water. It’s the kind of masterful cinema that bring you to tears.

We’ve seen this kind of innovative film work before, but somehow it always seems to fly beneath the radar. A few years back, Beasts of the Southern Wild was another innovative small budget film that gained recognition from the Academy. This film took you in to the experience of living a vulnerable area of Louisiana post hurricane. Like Moonlight, Beasts of the Southern Wild is also told from the perspective of a child, a little girl name Hushpuppy. She takes us through her heartbreaking reality, but teaches us to see the beauty in a life that most American’s would look upon as wretched. Through the use of fantastic realism, we see the world as Hushpuppy does and the result is inspiring. At one point, Hushpuppy mistakenly says that when she dies, scientists will record it so that she can be studied in school one day. It’s a sad thought for the audience who knows that stories like hers often go untold. The irony is that by virtue of the film, her story has been told (even if she is fictional character).

Moonlight and Beasts of the Southern Wild both utilize experimental techniques to guide the audience in to a shared perspective with their subjects. They do this to tell the untold stories. This leads me to wonder if the film makers are developing these techniques because the technical schemas Hollywood has provided are inadequate. Hollywood has a long history of appreciating (and underappreciating) experimental filmmaking. Films like Citizen Kane developed the technical ground work that future movies were built upon. Filmmaking itself began as an experiment and became a narrative vehicle that has been honed by generations of artists. While innovative techniques are sometimes recognized (Birdman did win Best Picture just a couple years back), we often fail to acknowledge the artists on the cutting edge of filmmaking. Many film students study Tongues Untied, an Avant Garde film that shares similar themes with Moonlight, but this film is virtually unheard of in the general population.

Art shouldn’t be hidden away just for those in the art world to see, but Avant Garde filmmaking is often considered inaccessible for a wider audience. Considering that Avant Garde works often fail to gain recognition, Beyoncé’s release of the long form music video version of “Lemonade” was a revelation when it exploded upon the public consciousness last year. Lemonade takes the audience through an emotional journey of the artist’s heartbreak over her husband’s infidelity, the breakdown of their marriage and then, their ultimate reconciliation. Beyoncé seems to have made Lemonade with the purpose of self-exploration and expression, but it’s also clearly intended to be empowering, particularly for black women. Utilizing historically African American iconography, makeup, and costumes, she explores the black female experience in America and its long history of marginalization, focusing on her own experience with infidelity as the vehicle.

Lemonade is a film made up of contrasts. It has a clear feminist message, which seems to fall in line with a liberal point of view, but it also takes a deep dive in to her Southern roots and culture, with songs like “Daddy Lessons” which focuses on her father teaching her to shoot a gun. Throughout the film, she travels between urban and rural cultures, but the two dynamics do not feel at odds. Instead, they seem to provide a more well-rounded view of the artist and the influences that shaped her. The film draws from the Avant Garde tradition as it often incorporates found footage, surreal imagery, creative montage and editing techniques, while it switches between visual styles in a sometimes-disorienting fashion. It even outright references the groundbreaking experimental film, Wavelength. Most notably, it weaves in poetry by Warsan Shire which contributes to the narrative arch of the long form music video.

As a music video, the music and the image act in counterpoint with each informing the other. The cheerful reggae influenced song “Hold Up” played over images of Beyoncé walking down the street yielding a baseball bat and destroying cars lends an oddly joyful tone to the otherwise violent imagery. Contrast this to “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, a much angrier song that becomes more empowering than spiteful through its visual portrayal. The imagery and poetry of the film also change your relationship to the album. Directly after the recitation of a vulnerable poem about marital conjugal bliss the video dives in to images of a whore house which burns to the ground illustrating the marital violation she has experienced. “Six Inch” plays over these images. By itself this song would seem to be primarily lauding her success as hip hop artist, but in context it becomes an emotional journey of a violated woman throwing herself in to work in order to hide her pain and rediscover her identity. After seeing the video, the experience of the music will never be the same.

Lemonade and Moonlight are films that visually stun you, but also reach you emotionally. They tell stories of the African American experience by utilizing the most creative techniques filmmaking has to offer. Time will tell if they have the lasting impact of similar experimental films like Do the Right Thing, but they certainly make it clear today that we all can benefit from a greater breadth of perspectives in filmmaking. How else are we going to become a country that understands and values its diversity? Sometimes these stories can be hard to watch, but if taken from the inside view, there is beauty to be found. One of the poems in Lemonade says it best as it explores the theme of finding joy in adversity: “you spun gold out of this hard life.”