How New Films are Broadening the Public Conscience

How movies like Moonlight and Encanto are visual representations of the socio-cultural landscape of the 21st century.

Arts & Culture

In the last twenty years, filmmakers have made palpable headway in cinematography, set design, and writing. Societal awakening has resulted in increasing representation of marginalized groups and issues not often confronted in the public sphere, and films about people and issues that aren’t often discussed in the media give insight into unique experiences and open society up for difficult conversations about the world we live in. Despite the myriad of changes in representation the movie industry has undergone, it remains one of the largest influences on societal norms and behavior. According toUSA Today, the average American will watch over five thousand films during their lifetime.

One of the starkest developments in stories carried on on screens is the tackling of heavy mental health issues, such as addiction, discrimination, and trauma. When matters like these are handled correctly by filmmakers, they have an incredibly meaningful impact on the lives of viewers. 


The 2016 movieMoonlightfollows the life of Chiron, a young Black man growing up in Liberty City, Florida — a predominantly Black neighborhoodknownfor its crime, drug use, and poverty rates. Chiron’s relationships with his father figure Juan, an Afro-Cuban drug dealer, and his mother Paula, whom Juan sells drugs to, as well as his complicated entanglement with Kevin, his childhood friend and love interest cover themes of Black relationships to masculinity, vulnerability, and sexuality, as well as forgiveness, self-realization, and the historical trauma present in marginalized communities: all components still present in the lives of Black Americans. 

Moonlightillustrates processes many Black men undergo in a society that places expectations on their presentation and potential. After being bullied by classmates and his mother for his effeminate presentation, Chiron morphs into a hypermasculine version of himself and remains underdeveloped in his romantic experience in a way that is unique to Black men in the LGBTQ+ community. He is followed in his journey to forgive his mother for her neglect, giving voice to the many people who have difficult relationships with family members. The pipeline to the illegal drug industry that young men in low-income areas fall into is also explored, as Chiron’s involvement as a drug dealer is revealed towards the end of the film. 

The movie, which isheavilybased on the lives of co-writers Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who grew up where the film takes place, offers insight into experiences rarely given screen time and forces audiences to confront biases they may have and explore their personal relationships to issues discussed in the film. Audiences were then moved to bring these conversations from the theater to the dinner table, promoting open dialogue and leading to larger-scale changes in the perception of different groups and struggles. They made their reception of the film clear on online rating forums.Moonlightwas 2016’shighestaudience-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 98% approval rating.Moonlightsweptup many national awards following its release, including thefirstOscar for Best Picture won by an LGBTQ+ film and by an all-Black cast.

These accolades were relatively unexpected because of the historical pigeonholing of films encompassing Black and LGBTQ+ identities as alternative to the mainstream, rather than attractive to the general population. Tarell Alvin McCraney spoke about his efforts to portrayMoonlight’s characters in a way that encompasses all facets of their struggles, including but not limited to their race and sexual identity in an interview with ABC. He expressed that balancing a character’s identity with the overall themes ofMoonlightlike addiction, violence, and poverty, is essential to fairly depicting the populations on which the film’s storylines are based. 

“Those things existed, and if we try to take them out or just make it about one of those things, I think it's more disingenuous to do that than anything,” McCraneysaid.Moonlightmade way for the success of more films and television programs such asPose,a series based on New York’s drag ball subculture, andVida, which follows the life of a young queer Latina and her family. 


Filmmakers are also incorporating difficult topics into children’s movies. The 2021 filmEncantofollows 14-year-old Mirabel Madrigal in her quest to find out why she hasn’t been given a magical gift like the rest of her family and her navigation of stressed relationships with them. Unbeknownst to Mirabel, her grandmother’s traumatic experience 50 years before the start of the film is the reason for her negligence and deception towards her family and the withholding of Mirabel’s gift. An armed conflict forced Mirabel’s grandparents, who were a young married couple at the time, to flee their home village in Colombia with their young children, who would become Mirabel’s mother, uncle, and sister.  Her grandfather is killed, and Mirabel’s grandmother resolves to protect her family by any means possible. 

The themes covered byEncantoare heavier than those in children’s movies in years before, but are handled delicately enough to be understood by its target audience. In particular, the film gently illustrates generational trauma, a phenomenon inwhichtrauma is passed down from parents to children. Black and Indigenous people, Jews, and survivors of abuse or war have beenshownto be the primary sufferers, with effects such as higher rates of mental illness, infertility, and decreased lifespan. 

As native Columbians, the fictional Madrigal family represents the manifestations of tension, emotional unavailability, and neglect that often occur in real families struggling with this type of trauma.Encantoopened society up to exchanges about generational trauma and other taboo topics while including the next generation in the conversation. Children who watchEncantobecome equipped with resources to recognize conflict in their own families when they see it and express themselves in productive and respectful ways towards their siblings, parents, and extended families. SinceEncanto’s release, another Disney animated film has made headlines.Turning Redhas beenlaudedby youth and parents alike for its presentation of puberty, particularly the beginning of menstruation, in its main character, a Chinese-Canadian teenage girl. 

MoonlightandEncantoappeal to two different audiences, but their effects are the same: the representation of underrepresented communities on the screen and the benefits of their exposure to people who don’t share their experiences. As understanding concerning minority groups and mental health continues to rise, films like these will remain remarkably useful tools for ending destructive cycles and beginning critical dialogue.