Seldom do moments in film history truly attain icon status. This hyperbole radiates only when something significant occurs that might change the course of history, for better or worse. The former transpired the evening of Feb. 26, when “Moonlight,” an LGBTQ film, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Admittedly, this distinction is not the first thought that resonates from this event — the cataclysmic “La La Land” mishap will eternally make this night iconic for all the wrong reasons. Yet in its wake, “Moonlight’s” victory signified several major milestones: for independent filmmaking, black cinema and once again, LGBTQ film. The latter of these is particularly potent, as “Moonlight’s” little gold statuette is perhaps a symbol of the gradual change in the magnitude of gay film and, wholly, LGBTQ affairs in general.
Compare this celebratory time to 11 years ago, when “Brokeback Mountain” was also nominated for Best Picture and was heavily tipped to win the remaining four nominees. The film swept awards predictions and contained the ingredients for an Oscars perfect storm: an acclaimed director, young but respected A-list cast and a recognizable tragic romance narrative. Despite these attributes, “Brokeback” was deprived its Best Picture award, and which went to “Crash” instead. This ignited a fiery outburst of criticism against the Academy for multiple reasons — one of which proclaimed that the predominantly older male demographic that comprises the majority of Academy Award voters was homophobic and not ready to accept change. At this time, same-sex marriage was not legal and the troubles of protests surrounding it were continually escalating. Perhaps “Brokeback” losing the Best Picture race arose more from external political wariness rather than internal gauges of content.
Times have undoubtedly changed in the last 11 years: following a June 26, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. With this in mind, “Moonlight’s” historical achievement can further be interpreted as a reflection of the broader welcoming of LGBTQ-centric narratives in film, coinciding with the national recognition of same sex issues.
But an exclusive glance of awards prestige, while beguiling, potentially leads down a plateau with arbitrary variables. Fortunately, this upswing in the proliferation of LGBTQ cinema is ostensibly thriving in other fringes of pop culture. Over this past summer, an animated short film titled “In a Heartbeat” was released, which adorably demonstrates the anxieties of a gay boy’s crush in four minutes. With a heaping of applause, the short blew up: it surged on Twitter’s trending page and gathered an abundance of Facebook shares within days of its July 31 release. As of now, “In a Heartbeat” has over 30 million views on YouTube.
It does not appear to be that the rise in prominence of LGBTQ films is going to halt anytime soon. At the New York Film Festival, one especially scorching ticket to acquire is for “Call Me by Your Name.” Based on Andre Aciman’s celebrated piece of gay prose of the same name, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to critical laurels and is one of the highest rated films of the year, donning an esteemed 97/100 on Metacritic. While most people might have to wait just a tad longer to see the film (tickets sold out minutes after they were released), it is another exemplar, conforming to a spike in popularity of LGBTQ cinema.
Popularity, to some degree, is a sign of acceptance. Before being predominantly confined to the underbelly of arthouse and independent film, LGBTQ cinema is now not only more accessible, but flourishing into mainstream appreciation. It is fitting that this is occurring at the same time that the LGBTQ community is experiencing more acceptance within American society. Surely, not everything is as idyllic as it sounds yet, and more work is to be done. But for now, this is a sign of how far society has progressed since “Brokeback” hit theaters, and the results are iconic in their own right.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Oct. 5 print edition. Email Matthew Holman at [email protected]