What a night!
Leave it to a telecast celebrating the films of 2016 to have a shocking surprise in store at the end. Last year, the modest Spotlight bested the bombastic The Revenant in the Best Picture race, even after Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won Best Director. This wasn’t a total shocker, because The Revenant was a more divisive film than Spotlight, which everyone pretty much agreed was at least good. But I predicted The Revenant in my Oscar pool because I was being a realist — and also because I convinced myself that predicting the movie I wanted to win would mean it wasn’t going to.
This year, like most prognosticators, I predicted La La Land, taking the same strategy. Again, the film I actually wanted and hoped would win did.
Apparently, there is something to my theory after all.
You’re welcome, Moonlight.
All kidding aside, tonight feels historic — and not only because of the unprecedented blunder of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway receiving the wrong envelope. Much is being dissected about that snafu, which was possibly one of the most thrilling televised moments I’ve personally ever seen. (I don’t watch sports. The Oscars are my sports. Just imagine a game-changing 9th inning touchdown, or whatever.)
I don’t need to get into that envelope mix-up here, since everyone is already buzzing about it. What I want to talk about is what will matter when this story dies down — Moonlight, winning Best Picture.“There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke.”
Since this past November, many of us have felt unsettled. Our understanding of what is even possible in this country has been challenged and defied. We can expect plenty more of the same coming down the pipeline for the next few years.
So this year, in particular, it was difficult to hope another high-profile vote would turn out the way I’d like to. Of course, I know the election of the leader of our country has a hell of a lot more consequence than which movie wins Best Picture at the Oscars. Would I rather live in a world where Hillary Clinton is president and La La Land wins Best Picture? You bet.
But still. Now, of all times, it’s very important that it’s Moonlight.
Had Moonlight been called as Best Picture straightaway, without the erroneous La La Land win first stealing its thunder, it would have been a wonderful, jubilant moment. A welcome surprise to many, including me. But the way it happened was shocking, surreal, another thing entirely — and ultimately, it highlights (rather than diminishes) how significant the moment is.
Here’s how it played out: La La Land was announced as Best Picture, as expected. We were midway through the acceptance speeches when there was a flurry of strangeness on stage and La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz had to make it clear that no, actually, Moonlight was winner — well, it felt like fate intervening, saying, “Hey, wait a second… that isn’t right. Let’s correct this.”It’s particularly ironic, coming during the coronation of La La Land, a film that ends with a flash to an “alternate universe” where Seb and Mia end up happily in love, then rips that illusion away to present us with bittersweet reality. That’s exactly what we saw play out on stage — history going the way we expect it to go, according to precedent — and then it just stopped, and something better happened.
I wish fate showed up a few months earlier and chose its contest more selectively. A “Gotcha! It’s Hillary!” would have been so right, so satisfying. For weeks after, many of us were in denial that the election went the way it did. Surely something would come along and save us before inauguration… right? Revelations about Russian interference? Jill Stein’s recount? The electoral college deciding not to vote for that creep after all? It’s still hard to swallow that things turned out the way they did… and then just kept getting more and more dismaying.
Our national nightmare is far from over, and of course, Moonlight being Best Picture doesn’t change that. But after Adele besting Beyonce’s more ambitious and socially relevant Lemonade at the Grammys, it seemed all but inevitable that the whiter, more populist choice would take home the Oscar, too.
Instead, something finally went right.
Moonlight is the first Best Picture winner centered on gay characters, and the first about black people that isn’t explicitly about slavery or race. It isn’t based on the true story of an abolitionist or Civil Rights leader. Moonlight is based on an unproduced play that is semi-autobiographical, directed by a filmmaker very few of us had heard of a year ago. Hardly anyone in its cast was a recognizable name to most moviegoers last year. It cost less than $2 million to make, and was clearly assembled with genuine passion and heart. It’s one of the most critically acclaimed films released in ages. Not everyone loves Moonlight, but few have anything truly disparaging to say about it. So you can’t attribute Moonlight‘s win to any of the usual scapegoats — Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood being out of touch, huge awards campaign budgets, Academy voters loving to see themselves reflected on screen, a former nominee being awarded for a lesser work. This one is based purely on the quality of the movie.
Moonlight had to be a fucking incredible film to get as far as it did, and it is. You don’t make a movie about gay black men thinking you’ll be a big hit at the box office. You don’t make a film like Moonlight thinking you’ll win an Oscar for it, let alone that the public at large will even hear about it. That’s why Moonlight‘s victory is so victorious — it is really, truly earned. It’s a fantastic Best Picture winner that will stand the test of time, that the Academy can still be proud in five, ten, and one hundred years. I’ve seen a few films I love and admire take this award before, but it’s been a long time since any of the meant as much as Moonlight.
Some may consider Moonlight‘s win a political statement against the current White House, or an over-correction for the last couple years’ #OscarsSoWhite controversy. But if that’s all it is, why Moonlight? Why not Fences or Hidden Figures, which had bigger budgets and bigger stars and a hell of a lot more marketing? I’m sure many voters considered the fact that this film honors both African-Americans and LGBTQ people before filling out their ballots, but I don’t buy that as the primary reason the Academy went for it. Voters should take a pause and think about what kind of statement they’re making when they select the winners — but that alone shouldn’t declare the winner. Moonlight won Best Picture because it’s a beautiful movie that moved so many people, because it is well-crafted at every level, because it is unique and authentic and special. It had no advantages; in fact, it had everything going against it as a Best Picture contender. By contrast, La La Land plays into some of the worst stereotypes about Oscar voters — the voting body that chose The Artist, Argo, and Birdman, none of which are, on their own merits, true classics. Hollywood is one of few voices with the power and reach to stand strongly against the actions of the current president and his administration, and it would have been a bit of a shame to see Tinseltown award such a nostalgic throwback (“Make musicals great again!”) at this moment. Those of us on the right side of history need to celebrate all the diversity we can, as loudly as possible. For all its charms and merits, La La Land doesn’t do that.
So when fate intervened and literally ripped those golden statuettes out of those poor La La Land producers’ hands, it felt like a belated righting of all the wrongs we’ve witnessed over the last few months. My jaw dropped. I was confused, but ecstatic. It was like a genie had appeared to grant my wish right before my eyes. Like magic.
No, Moonlight winning Best Picture doesn’t actually do anything for us in the here and now. But as long as there are movies, people will see its name amidst some of the most popular and beloved titles of all time — All About Eve, Gone With The Wind, Titanic, Lawrence Of Arabia. (And, okay, A Beautiful Mind and The King’s Speech.) This win will get people who would never watch Moonlight to watch Moonlight. I don’t know that one film alone can change anyone’s mind about major political issues, but if one can, Moonlight isn’t a bad bet. It’s a film about empathy, about understanding the life of a man who, on the surface, is very different from most of us, yet totally relatable to all in the way his story is presented. Intolerance, in large part, is born from ignorance and misunderstanding. Moonlight could help people understand and empathize with someone that is far outside their usual social circle.
No, I don’t expect the Rust Belt to rush out and buy up all available copies of Moonlight on DVD. I don’t expect hearts and minds across the nation to suddenly shift, all thanks to Barry Jenkins. But more people will see Moonlight now, plain and simple, and that’s a good thing. Producers and studios will look at its win, and decide that it is worth taking a chance on more films about black or gay people — or black and gay people. Through no fault of its own, necessarily, La La Land didn’t have the message Hollywood and America needed to send out to the world in 2017. Moonlight did.
Let me be clear: La La Land is not the Donald Trump of movies. This year, that would have been something with far fewer redeeming qualities, something brash and obnoxious and stupidly popular like Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad (which, unfortunately, really did win an Oscar). La La Land earns at least some of the harsh backlash it received — Damien Chazelle’s depiction of Seb as the self-proclaimed white savior of jazz isn’t great, and the problems of the film’s central dreamers pale in comparison to — well, every other Best Picture nominee, frankly. Its story doesn’t totally hang together with close scrutiny. But it wouldn’t be a historically bad choice for Best Picture — just an obvious and uninspired one. That wouldn’t have done anyone any favors.
As a Best Picture winner, La La Land would have been in trouble, subject to a legacy of vitriol that currently gets spent on Crash, mostly. (For the record, I remain a fan of Crash, and still like it better than Brokeback Mountain — though that would have been a perfectly worthy Best Picture winner, too.)
As a Best Picture loser, La La Land is free to go back to being a pretty okay original musical with a lot to like about it.In fact, after the Oscars telecast and Moonlight‘s stunning victory, I was struck by an inexplicable urge to watch… no, not Moonlight. Yes, La La Land. Maybe because Jordan Horowitz and his team handled that defeat with such grace, I found myself feeling unexpected sympathy and respect for them and their little musical. You had to feel bad for those guys, experiencing the greatest triumph of their careers, then learning that they actually hadn’t — live on television in front of millions of people. Suddenly, La La Land was an underdog — and La La Land is a much better underdog than it is an overachiever. It’s a movie about the setbacks and disappointments that accompany a life of reaching for the stars. Having rewatched La La Land just now, I can tell you that those setbacks and disappointments play a lot better when the film itself a loser.
(A loser that killed at the box office, is admired by many critics and audiences, and won six other Oscars, that is.)
Moonlight‘s Best Picture win allowed me to forgive La La Land its shortcomings and just enjoy it in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I imagine the same will be true for many others who were underwhelmed by the film and cursed its likely win. I honestly believe that losing Best Picture is the best thing that could possibly have happened to Damien Chazelle and La La Land in the long run.
Despite the fuck ups, the net effect of the night’s Oscars telecast was simply beautiful. Viola Davis is an incredible actress who deserves at least one Academy Award. Casey Affleck was quite good in Manchester By The Sea (if not so great in real life). Emma Stone did so much to enhance La La Land’s strengths — she made us feel for her in a way that her male counterpart did not. (Perhaps because of the writing, perhaps because of the acting — most likely, because of both.) And Mahershala Ali is a revelation to many of this year — can you imagine how his career path will change now? I hope there are many more great roles in store for this charismatic actor.
OJ: Made In America may or may not be a movie, but obviously the Academy and I agree that it can be. I didn’t see The Salesman or The White Helmets yet, but I was happy that the important messages from their filmmakers reached a mass audience. Arrival got a well-deserved technical award. I didn’t love the way every category panned out, but I can honestly say that looking down the list of the night’s winners makes me really content. It’s the most satisfying the Oscars have been in quite some time.These are hard times for anyone who isn’t a heterosexual white Christian, and for those who care about the people who don’t fit in this narrow box. We needed a victory right now. I needed a victory. This is a significant moment, not just because my favorite film of the year won Best Picture, and not just because Moonlight, in some ways, represents me in a way no other Best Picture winner ever has.
It’s because, on paper, Moonlight is the least likely Best Picture winner to ever win Best Picture, and also one of the most deserving. It’s a sign that things might be slowly but surely getting better for the people this film is about. People out there need to know that, for all the recent setbacks and problems we have yet to solve, diverse voices can still rise up out of nowhere, from nothing, and end up broadcasting their stories to the entire world. I’m so happy that message got out there, even if it had to happen the way it did, under the weirdest and most dramatic of circumstances. Moonlight is the kind of movie I want to see more of and the kind of movie I want to make. It gives me great hope that it has been so celebrated by the industry’s foremost artists and professionals.
I don’t equate my own struggles with any other group. We’ve all got our own problems in the current moment, some more severe than others, but all worthy of being heard. Yet in the past few months, I’ve felt a swell of solidarity with everyone else out there who is vulnerable under this administration, and everyone who has stood up to support us. It’s not because I feel I’m at the same level of risk as many others — I’m not — I’ve just gotten a little taste of it, and that changes the way I see the world around me now. I don’t pretend to understand what I haven’t experienced, but I try harder now to empathize with it.
Last year, Moonlight was the film that best spoke to that, in the most simple and understated way. I’m always glad when diversity is deservedly rewarded, but I don’t know that I’ve ever felt I truly shared one of those awards, until now. Not to undermine the achievements of the incredible talents who actually did the work of making this incredible movie, but a Best Picture Oscar for Moonlight feels like a Best Picture for all of us.
Here’s to the fools — the straight white male ones, and all the rest, who have to dream even harder to make it.