On Sunday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did exactly what every pundit predicted it would do and awarded La La Land the evening’s top prize, Best Picture.
And then the Oscars did something they never do, though they’ve given themselves plenty of opportunities: They realized they’d awarded the wrong movie. In perhaps the most bizarre and embarrassing moment in the ceremony’s 89-year history, a confused Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde themselves) initially announced that Damien Chazelle’s beloved musical La La Land had won. The nearly all-white team behind the critical darling ascended to the stage and proceeded to give awkward speeches championing “bold and diverse work” and in one case thanking a “generous, talented, beautiful, blue-eyed” spouse. But midway through the pomp, it became clear that something was amiss. Beatty and Dunaway had somehow ended up with the wrong envelope. Moments later, Jenkins and his cast and production team made their way to the center of the stage. And just like that, the academy got it absolutely right.
La La Land was the obvious choice that everyone expected the academy to make. Like three out of the past five Oscar winners—Birdman in 2015, Argo in 2013, and The Artist in 2011—it was a movie about movies, something the filmmaking academy, naturally, adores. It was also more acclaimed than all three of those previous movie-about-movie winners and a bigger hit at the box office, too. But while normally one might look at such a self-congratulatory would-be choice, shrug, and say, “Oscars gonna Oscar,” the stakes, after the 2016 election, felt higher. It would have felt out of touch with the political moment to reward a movie about the struggles of privileged white people whose greatest obstacles are essentially scheduling conflicts.
But even setting aside the La La Land vs. Moonlight narrative, the larger political context, and the Steve Harvey–esque mix-up, Moonlight’s win is nothing short of historic. No movie centered on an LGBTQ character has ever before received Hollywood’s biggest award—Cabaret, Milk, Dallas Buyers Club, and, most famously, Brokeback Mountain all lost in their respective years. And as I’ve noted before, the academy’s track record for honoring stories about black people is spotty at best. Moonlight is also the first Best Picture winner about black characters that is not about racism. The only previous winners about black protagonists were In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy, and 12 Years a Slave (along with plenty of movies with black people at the margins, such as Gone With the Wind and Crash). All of those were in some way about the Struggle.
Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ captivating story of a sensitive, vulnerable black boy in search of acceptance and human connection, isn’t either of those things. While its mere existence as a film by a black director and black writers and a predominantly black cast is in itself a sort of political statement, it doesn’t wear that badge ostentatiously. Though it has themes of homophobia, poverty, and bullying, it’s ultimately a quiet, achingly personal love story anchored by ambitious creative choices (casting three different actors to play each of the two young male leads, for instance) and a film that does more showing than telling. In other words, Moonlight is the type of movie that pretty much never gets made and thus never gets rewarded.
It’s also, by nearly any standard, not just a great movie but a historically great movie. The knee-jerk response one can always expect when discussing the importance of representation at awards shows is the meritocracy argument, i.e., “Stop whining about [nonwhite/nonmale/nonstraight people] not winning roles or awards; everything should be based upon how good you are, not your race or gender or sexuality.” Well, first, if the best filmmakers always won, Alfred Hitchcock would have come away with a wheelbarrow full of Oscars in his career, instead of none. But let’s stay for a moment with the illusion that the academy’s choices are based solely, or even primarily, on merit. Moonlight holds a near-perfect 99 score on Metacritic (vs. La La Land’s still-impressive 93) and lands at No. 4 on the reviews-aggregation site’s all-time list, behind only The Godfather, Boyhood, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red. It also topped the Village Voice’s critics poll for 2016, making this only the second time in the 21st century when the Oscars anointed the same best film of the year as the critics. And as the Wrap reported last week, Moonlight emerged with more of the top film awards throughout the season than any other movie.
Still, the night often sent messages as mixed as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s. The academy was indeed dazzled by the glamour of La La Land’s city of stars, giving it six awards, the most of the night. Though Jenkins could have become the first black person to win Best Director, Chazelle’s win instead suggested that the academy has settled into a groove of awarding the Most Directing, whether or not it’s the Best Directing. Just like each of the past three winners—Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity and Alejandro González Iñárritu, twice, for Birdman and The Revenant—Chazelle is notable for having helmed the nominee with the most “Look at me!” long takes.
Yet the academy wasn’t afraid to be bolder and more daring than ever before in other big ways. Even setting aside Moonlight, the Oscars were hardly #sowhite: This year saw the most number of black winners ever, with Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, Ezra Edelman, Barry Jenkins, and Tarell Alvin McCraney (the latter two for Best Adapted Screenplay) all taking home awards, and Ali becoming the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the academy deserves a cookie for merely awarding the people who deserved to win. (Davis had already won a Tony for the same role in Fences, after all, and Edelman’s sprawling O.J.: Made in America has been almost universally heralded as a masterpiece.) We’ve seen Hollywood pat itself on its back before without making permanent change, long before the infamous hashtag forced the academy to rethink its membership rules for Oscars voters last year. But by awarding Moonlight, at a time when both blackness and queerness are being directly challenged at the highest levels of power, the Oscars landed on the right side of history—both cinematic and otherwise.