Why Moonlight’s Success is Far More Significant than the Oscar Night Mix-Up

After what seems like months of build-ups, pre-awards shows and gorgeous gowns, film’s biggest night has come and gone. This year’s awards season presented significant challenges for Hollywood. How should the film industry navigate the current political climate while still addressing its own diversity problems?

Earlier this year the Academy announced historic measures to change the makeup of its membership, with the aim of increasing the diversity of nominees and recipients. With a membership that in 2014 was 94% white, 76% male and had an average age of sixty-five, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go until we see equal representation. Still, either as a result of these early measures or by complete coincidence, the nominees for this year’s Oscars were far more diverse. Four of the Best Picture nominees –Fences, Moonlight, Lion and Hidden Figures– showcased non-white stories, with acting nominations for Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington and Mahershala Ali.

One of the most memorable moments from each Oscar night is when the four acting winners gather after the ceremony for a photo-call with their freshly engraved golden statues. In recent years we’ve become used to seeing the same image: four white people with an average age of 33 and an even smaller waist-size. This year, however, marked a huge visual contrast as Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali joined Casey Affleck and Emma Stone to parade their awards.

Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, has provided by far the most debate surrounding race throughout the awards season. The film follows Chiron, a young African American boy, from childhood to adulthood as he navigates life in a Miami ghetto with a mother who is addicted to crack. Beautiful cinematography meets arresting dialogue and feverish sexual tension throughout, and the film has been celebrated for its exploration of black queer identity and sexuality.

Still, not everyone agrees. Film critic Camilla Long proclaimed that Moonlight is a film about black suffering for a “non-black, non-gay, non-working class, chin-stroking, self-regarding and turbo smug audience”. Although Long has been widely discredited for the review in which she compared one black actor to a basketball player and another to rapper 50 Cent, her comments did spark a debate about why each of us enjoys certain films. Moonlight is a niche film that describes a very specific experience of life. This isn’t to say that people who aren’t black or gay can’t enjoy the film, of course they can, but people in those demographics are more likely to find the film relevant to them. Not every film is for everyone, and that’s fine. Although just because a film isn’t relatable to you, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Everyone deserves to see a version of themselves on screen. Take note, Ms Long.

Then there is La La Land. The cinematic juggernaut starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling that seemed impossible to beat, having cleaned up at virtually every awards ceremony throughout the season. Shortly after La La Land’s release, it seemed a dead cert that the film would win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. For two weeks in January, the film really was all anyone could talk about. Whether on the side of buses or on my news feed, the now-iconic image of Stone and Gosling dancing together was impossible to escape.

But then the backlash began to set in. Alongside the film’s positive, lovey-dovey vibe, the “white jazz” narrative drew criticism from members of the black community. As Moonlight gained momentum, La La Land suddenly became a euphemism for all things basic. A few short weeks after the world fell in love with the film, the backlash was in full-swing. It was seen by many as the ‘populist’ choice. A film for the masses. The Brexit of the 2017 awards season.

By now we all know what happened next, don’t we? In a scene more dramatic than any piece of acting, La La Land won Best Picture only to have the award cruelly taken away after a mix-up with envelopes. Moonlight had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, literally.

There are numerous theories of why on this occasion David defeated Goliath. In many ways La La Land became a victim of it’s own success. It lost momentum half way through, like Diana Vickers when she was on The X Factor. Still, this doesn’t make the fact Moonlight was able to win the most coveted prize in film any less miraculous. Stories that explore blackness are so often overlooked for those that describe a white experience that it’s almost become routine. Just look at Adele and Beyoncé at the Grammy’s.

Everyone knows that there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a film about Hollywood, and La La Land had a budget of over $35million and two of the biggest stars in Hollywood at its disposal. This makes the fact that Moonlight – a film made on a budget of $1.5million that explores not only blackness, but queer blackness – was able to win over a historically un-diverse voting panel even more incredible.

Whether Moonlight’s audience are “turbo smug” or not, it really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the Academy has decided to celebrate a different kind of story. Their actions signal an understanding that there are different Americas where minorities have different experiences. These stories may seem alien, but they are still real and worth telling.

So while the controversy surrounding the awards mix-up threatens to overshadow Moonlight’s achievement, let’s remember that the film is far more culturally significant than this. It proves to me and countless others that characters in stories about blackness or queerness don’t have to be defined by their weaknesses or suffering, but by their humanity.

Follow Louis on Twitter @LouisStaples

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