From the outside, it’s easy to understand why “Moonlight” appeals to Oscar voters. The drama exposes the underbelly of an ignored and blighted corner of the US, and it demands that its extremely talented actors shout and cry a lot. It’s also, as critics rightfully point out, in the tradition of movies about the degradations of black life, like “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball.” The worst parts of the movie indulge in movie-of-the-week cliches about crackheads (the addict mom seemingly transforms out of nowhere by the end to deliver a final redemptive note).
But “Moonlight” is unique and life-affirming, even soul-cleansing, in a more fundamental way. This is a movie centered on a poor black man with gay desires that is not in any central way about being black, gay, or poor. The director and the writer of the play on which “Moonlight” is based — who are from the same housing projects in Liberty City, Miami, where it’s set — deeply understand how circumstances shape their main character, as we see through the gorgeous on-location shooting. (Anyone from Miami or the surrounding area, like I am, will feel the heat just watching.) But the quiet, stunning revelation of the movie is that this poor black man with gay desires can’t be pinned down to any of those things. We watch him define his own identity, on his own terms.