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So which did you want to win, the black film or the white film?
This year’s best picture Oscar was technically a nine-horse race, but it was reduced to, and will be remembered as, essentially Moonlight v La La Land. There was never any doubt that one or other of these films would win best picture, and the two movies readily lent themselves to polar opposition. Moonlight is small in scale, personal, bang up-to-date; La La Land bigger, bolder, unashamedly retro. One is a story of marginal, southern African-American experience; the other a big, predominantly white “hooray for Hollywood”. Moonlight was the David to La La Land’s Goliath.
The impression of rivalry was only reinforced by the farcical “And the winner is … Oh no it isn’t!” mix up, which brought the makers of the two movies on stage together, and practically snatched the statuette out of La La Land’s hands, mid-acceptance speeches and thrust it into Moonlight’s. A symbolic passing of the baton, perhaps, but you could say there was something tragically apt about the way Team Moonlight’s limelight was cruelly stolen away from them in the confusion. Director Barry Jenkins, writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and producers Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner were outsiders even at their own coronation, denied what should have been a moment of glory.
There were echoes of Hattie McDaniel, 76 years ago, who had to walk up to collect her Best Supporting Actress Oscar from a table way down the back of the hall. She was seated separately from the rest of the Gone With The Wind stars, whose own table groaned with statuettes and champagne bottles. McDaniel was lucky to even be allowed into the segregated Ambassador Hotel for the ceremony. McDaniel was lucky to even be allowed into the segregated Ambassador Hotel for the ceremony Something about the way Moonlight won felt similar – a moment of triumph, tarnished.
Moonlight was a thoroughly deserving winner for so many reasons, many of which boil down the fact that this type of movie doesn’t usually get Oscar recognition. It was a historic win in terms of films about LGBT subjects. In the past, many films, including such as Brokeback Mountain, Dallas Buyers Club or Kiss of the Spiderwoman have come close or picked up other awards, but not best picture. More importantly, it was historic in terms of African-American cinema. It isn’t the first best picture winner (Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave achieved that milestone four years ago), but it was the first to do so without being about civil rights or race relations – which is also a milestone. That’s tended to be the only type of African-American picture the Academy recognises, be it 12 Years, Lincoln, In the Heat of the Night or Driving Miss Daisy.
If you were feeling less charitable and more Team La La Land, you could also consider Moonlight’s victory in the context of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite debacleabout the lack of African-American representation in the acting categories. Big stars like Will Smith boycotting the world’s pre-eminent awards show was a shaming the Oscars could not afford to repeat. Before last year’s ceremony, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced sweeping changes to its entry process which would bring more women and people of colour into a voting body that was 74% male and 93% white. Last year it gained a record 683 new members, 46% of whom were women, 41% people of colour. Did that, combined with an Academy-wide sense of guilt, tip the balance in Moonlight’s favour? To deny that the new, more representative voting demographic might have contributed to this result would be to defeat the purpose of the exercise. To acknowledge it is to call into question every previous Best Picture winner, decided by a bunch of old white guys.
Even more contentiously, did #OscarSoWhite affect critical opinion? No critic would ever admit such a thing, but few of them had a bad word to say about Moonlight. It has a 99% rating on Metacritic – the fourth highest of all time (La La Land’s is 93). And while La La Land’s huge popularity prompted something of a backlash, when Sunday Times critic Camilla Long gave Moonlight a negative review a murmuration of Twitter users bore down on her like something out of a Hitchcock movie. Long’s objections might have borne little substance for many – they basically boiled down to “I’m white and middle class, so there” – but there must have been plenty of critics out there relieved it wasn’t them getting pecked to pieces.
Couching Moonlight’s victory in any of these terms somehow detracts from it, though. Can’t we just say it won because it was a great movie? It’s such a brave, fresh piece of work. Brave in its three-act, three-actor structure. Brave in its deconstruction and reappropriation of African-American stereotypes. Brave in its suggestion that humiliation and repression lie often beneath the carapace of masculine swagger. Brave in its soundtrack, its lighting, the way its swooning dreamy mood could take in harsh social realism, too. It’s a unique, complete work of art – and the Academy is notoriously bad at recognising those.
But here’s the thing. La La Land is a great film, too. It’s also bold and brave and adventurous, and would have been just as deserving of best picture, in my opinion. (Though if I had to choose I’d have given it to Moonlight – first, it could do with the extra box office and La La Land is already a smash; second, I slated Barry Jenkins’ first movie, Medicine for Melancholy, at the time, perhaps unfairly. I promise to bring myself to rewatch it, but I reserve to right to still dislike it). In the current Hollywood landscape, the mega-budget blockbusters are the Goliaths; Moonlight and La La Land are both Davids.Why do we have to pick sides? Amid the surreal on-stage confusion last night, as the statuettes and red envelopes changed hands and Bonnie and Clyde looked for their getaway car, host Jimmy Kimmel gushed to one of Team La La Land’s crestfallen members: “I would like to see you get an Oscar anyway. Why can’t we give out a whole bunch of them?”
So many presenters and winners last night said sincere, noble and important words about healing divisions and human decency and resisting the unravelling of the US – and possibly global – order that President Trump threatens to wreak. Starting with Kimmel, who beseeched viewers at home to “reach out to one person you disagree with, someone you like, and have a positive, considerate conversation”.
And that’s the problem: the Oscars is like sports or politics. It’s about creating winners and losers. It’s about pitting one team against another. In a small way, it’s about manufacturing the type of divisions its nominees spoke against. But then again, who wants to see an awards show where everybody gets an Oscar?
[Steve Rose wriote Oscar Blog for the Guardian.]