“Moonlight” Breaks the Mold of an Academy Award Winner



Last night will go down in pop culture history as “the night Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong film for Best Picture at the Oscars.” So much happened on that stage the moment that La La Land “won.” As director Damien Chazelle brought up his team from the musical, there was a small frenzy happening amidst the celebration. People in headphones were scurrying across the stage, confused looks were exchanged, and then La La Land Jordan Horowitz stepped up to the mic and decided to keep it real and said, “There’s a mistake, Moonlight, you won the Best Picture — this is not a joke.” At first, I thought he was pulling an Adele-praising-Beyonce-at-the-Grammys bit, but then he snatched the correct card from Beatty’s paws revealing that Moonlight really did win for Best Picture. Even more confusion, awkwardness, and stunned looks ensued. The gaffe turned out to be the trending topic of the evening, but the real story isn’t this embarrassing moment in Oscars history (although it did make for great television). The real story is that Moonlight won.

MOONLIGHT isn’t like Spotlight, Birdman, The King’s Speech, or any Best Picture winners before it. It is unique and special because it’s a different narrative of the black experience that isn’t a tale of gang bangers or a story about slavery (which I will get into more later). First and foremost, it is a low-budget indie film with no huge marquee names. Barry Jenkins was a relatively unknown director who only had one feature credit (Medicine for Melancholy) to his name, while the film’s co-writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney never penned a feature before. As for the Moonlight’s stars, many recognize Mahershala Ali from House of Cards, Janelle Monae for her music, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny from the James Bond films. As super-talented as they are, they haven’t reached Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone status — but all of that has changed since awards season.

But don’t get it twisted — Moonlight did not win just because it is a black gay film. It won because it’s a brilliant and moving story about a boy learning to love and be loved. As all good films, it is about the complexities of love and the human condition that happened to be told through the eyes of a gay black man — something that is rarely seen. The gay experience has often been told through a white perspective, but seldom through people of color — which makes for a very different story. There have been a multitude of gay films that have been noticed by the Academy such as Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, and Philadelphia but none have centered on a black, Latino, Asian or other gay person of color. There have been many films of this ilk, but they seldom go beyond the indie festival circuit (see Saving Face, Tangerine, La Mission, Spa Night — just to name a few). Moonlight managed to break through that barrier and enter the mainstream, giving a wider audience the opportunity to see a story that deserves to be told — and told very well. In turn, it opens minds and furthers progress in a predominantly white cinematic world.

There have been only a handful of films to win with black protagonists (In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy, and 12 Years a Slave), but none with an all-black cast and a black director for that matter. Moonlight breaks the mold in this respect and because it is not a story about “urban” life, racism, or slavery, all of which have almost become tired tropes. Yes, there Harris plays a crack addict and Ali a drug dealer, but they are shown with a complexity we have never seen before. There’s empathy and conflict within their performances and Jenkins and co-writer doesn’t sensationalize their characters. Instead, they are important figures that moves Chiron’s character forward and advances the story. Moonlight is a story about people of color dealing with universal issues. It is following the lead of shows like Black-ish, Issa Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. It’s broadening the horizons of those that see the black community through a narrow lens.

Moonlight’s win is a major benchmark in the Academy’s history when it comes to diversity and inclusion in film — and it’s about time. Then again, the film industry isn’t known for moving in tandem with progress, but we’ll get there. Combined with this and the flood of diverse Academy members they inducted in 2016 (46 percent were female and 41 percent were people of color), the industry is catching up with television when it comes to diverse stories. At the forefront of this gradual shift is Brad Pitt’s banner, Plan B. He, along with Dede Gardner, Adele Romanski, and Jeremy Kleiner were behind the of diverse films like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, HBO’s The Normal Heart, and now Moonlight. With Jenkins’ win, other notable companies are bound to hop on board the diversity and inclusion train. They may be a little late to the party, but better late than never.

Amidst all the chaos during the final minutes of last night’s ceremony, we can’t let all of that insanity overshadow how big of a deal it is for a film like Moonlight to win. It had everything working against it: it was gay, black, low-budget, was a different story, and had no big names — yet it managed to be the little indie that could. Jenkins’ masterpiece proved that keeping an open mind to unknown talent and different, undiscovered narratives, black or otherwise, can lead to remarkable things.

 | Staff Writer

1 Comment

  1. Neal Reynolds on

    Yes, the real story is that “Moonlight” won — but not (probably) for the reasons you state. For your reasons to be validated, you’d have to have PriceWaterhouseCoopers confirm that it did in actuality get more votes for best picture than any other movie — which it probably didn’t:

    Most likely another film (such as La La land) got the most votes, but not 50%. So then (under the new voting procedure) the votes for second-best (and if necessary third-place) votes WERE TREATED AS IF THEY WERE VOTES FOR BEST PICTURE, WHICH THEY WERE NOT. (Arguably a form of fraud, since 99% of viewers don’t realize that this is the way the votes are counted.)

    Given how few people have actually seen “Moonlight” so far (given its limited release up until now and it not being available yet on DVD or streaming), and how it is exactly the sort of movie that white liberals would vote for (whether they’d seen it or not) for second place (after voting for the movie the really liked for first place), jumping up and down with excitement over “Moonlight” allegedly being declared best picture is (unless and until PwC reveals that [despite my analysis] in did in fact receive the most first place votes) premature and misleading.

    (P.S. I look forward to be able to see “Moonlight” now that it is getting a wider release.)

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