The race for Best Picture,up until the moment the La La Land producers got their victory speeches in, looked like a successful campaign run for a film that played its cards right. It swept the pre-cursors that mattered (PGA and DGA which are part of the 7/9 guild award sweep) and won a few more along the way. There was no conceivable reason to even fathom a loss for the modern musical. It was an ode to the romanticism of its genre’s greats and there was a sense that the next great musical had finally arrived. That, along with how it was about Hollywood and showbiz and following your dreams in the city of stars was on the path of a long line of films that Academy loves to love. Think The Artist(2011),Argo(2012) and Birdman(2014). Awards season has never seen such a dominant front-runner in a long time. This was La La Land’s to lose. And it did. Jordan Horowitz,producer of La La Land, would then deliver the most shocking news in Oscar history, ”No.There’s been a mistake. Moonlight…you guys won Best Picture.’
I screamed. And I bet many who were watching also did. There was a momentary silence in the crowd. Michelle Williams looked stunned. Meryl Streep’s eyes were bulged out and shell-shocked like a deer in the headlights. The Rock had a mystified look,with an unmistakable hint of comic bewilderment. There’s no other version to this story. Everywhere in the crowd was a bombshell of confusion. Everywhere on the stage was utter chaos. But when it had finally sunk in, reality was every bit piercing. And once it had been confirmed, the crowd broke into a rousing, frenetic cheer. Matt Damon whistled away. Taraji P Henson immediately whipped out her phone to record Moonlight’s speech. Samuel L Jackson wiped off his tears. As much as some Moonlight fans want to discuss the merits of the film, significance and implications of its win entirely based on its intrinsic quality, there is no doubt that Moonlight’s win represents so much more. And saying it’s a ‘vote for inclusion’ or how it’s a sign of progression and representation (of Black lives and LGBT) isn’t taking anything away from the film. Yes, it is a brilliant film in its own right, but it has to be considered in a larger social context. And that, I argue, makes Moonlight even more powerful and groundbreaking.
It’s probably still a shock to many, including Moonlight fans like myself, how it won the top prize. But maybe we it’s time to have a little faith because clearly it is because of the faith of the voting Academy that we now have the first all-black cast movie and first LGBT film to have won Best Picture. Let’s take a closer look:
These are just some pointers for analysis and consideration. They do not take anything away from the fact that many felt Moonlight was the best film of the year, and so, deserved the award based on its own individual merits.
1.The odds said no way, but never discount the love
Looking at the odds, Moonlight’s one Golden Globe win for Drama and WGA win for Original Screenplay pales in comparison to La La Land’s PGA and DGA. Count in BAFTA for extra points. Moonlight was favourite for SAG ensemble but Hidden Figures took it and stole the momentum. Despite the setbacks, there was a lot of love for Moonlight within the film community, internet, and critics. In the final weeks before the Oscars, anonymous voters who were questioned had Moonlight pretty high on their ballots, right up there with La La Land. Never discount the love.
2.Political backlash and Politics
Political backlash against La La Land grew as it felt increasingly overrated. The ‘white male saves jazz’ trope felt quite ridiculous for me, but that sentiment kept on growing. The fact that it’s an all-white cast, dealing with problems plaguing white people with showbiz aspirations also added to its dentriment. It felt all too familiar. But perhaps the biggest criticism of all is how it’s this airy, dreamy film that rides on escapism with not much gravitas…whereas Moonlight was the deeply personal and affecting story featuring a gay black protagonist that was also wholly universal. It had the undertones of social inequality, drugs, perceptions of masculinity, discrimination but more importantly, it portrayed its characters in the way that’s true but not what we usually see in cinema – They’re accessible because they’re just like us. This sort of breaking down the barriers of the way we look at people different from us AND breaking down traditional notions of what Blacks and LGBT people look like on screen seemed especially timely given the political climate of 2016. Donald Trump taking office and all the hate has birthed a strong united voice of opposition. Moonlight’s victory, however one may choose to deny, cannot be entirely removed from the fact that the industry (Hollywood) perhaps felt more conscious of their Best Picture choice. And Moonlight was a perfect way to show it. Apart from being a great artistic and film-making achievement (with more critics putting it as number 1 than any other film of 2016) and a positive sentiment amongst movie-goers, voting Moonlight also helps break #OscarSoWhite by showing the Academy is willing to reward a Black LGBT film for its merits.
3.The overdog/underdog paradogs (pun intended)
The paradox of overdog/underdog has contributed to the Best Picture wins for a number of films. The great Boyhood/Birdman race saw frontrunner Boyhood lose steam which allowed Birdman to literally swoop in for the win. The Revenant was the favourite for last year but started to gain more criticism the more it became a favourite, and it’s partly why Spotlight took home Best Picture. La La Land’s record-tying 14 nominations and record 7 wins at Golden Globes seemed to hurt it’s reputation more than solidify it. People who thought it was good but not great started to feel more doubtful. Good publicity in this case breeds bad publicity. Raised expectations of the film placed it at a very high standard and so actual voters who might have seen the film pretty late cannot watch the film without consciously thinking about how great they were told the film was. It isn’t all that great and so its not surprising that La La Land’s backlash grew even more. Team La La actually had a fantastic PR and publicity team that tried to position the film as the ‘underdog’. Hear Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle’s speeches where they highlight how it was so difficult to get it made AND how movies like that don’t get made nowadays. Truth be told though, Moonlight is actually the film you can’t get made. You’ve seen tons of musicals but not many about humanistic portrayals of marginalized groups. Team Moonlight however, was extremely humble and low-key throughout awards season. Their message? As director Barry Jenkins said it the best, ‘If you’ve seen this film, all I say is, tell a friend, tell a friend, tell a friend.’
4.Moonlight overcame it’s biggest stumbling block; Preferential Balloting
As much as La La Land was the supposed too-far-to-catch runaway leader, the preferential balloting system for Best Picture was actually the one aspect that encapsulated Moonlight’s obstacles into one tough stumbling block. Film-wise, Moonlight is unconventional and isn’t feel-good at all. It’s soul-searchingly deep and heavy…which is actually what the Academy prefers…and somehow alot of people including myself seem to have disregarded. Look at the past winners: Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, Argo…Still, Moonlight isn’t exactly the same kind of ‘serious’ film. And we all thought it would be pretty divisive for the over 60-yrs old white male demographic that makes up most of the Academy. It’s LGBT themes would surely have been thorny for some and the problems of Chiron growing up in the tumult of drug-infested, poverty-stricken ghettos of Miami while having to deal with his homosexuality is not transcendant for some. And yet, even as Moonlight seemed to be at the losing end of a system that favours a more general consensus type of film, it still won. Perhaps the story here is that things are really changing. Winning the preferential vote is no easy feat because other than gathering a support of people who vote your film as no.1, one must also try to be on as many no.2 places on the people who don’t have your film as no.1. It turns out that Moonlight actually had the consensus, and for once in a long time, I can finally say kudos to the Academy. It was the right choice.
And if you haven’t seen the film, I can only say please give it a watch. Congrats to Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney and the whole Moonlight team. Ya’ll deserved this 🙂