Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What 'Moonlight's Best Picture win means for the future of the Academy

With all of the general insanity that occurred at Sunday night's Academy Awards, it's easy to overlook so many aspects of what happened. And I'm not talking about the monumental screw-up that will reverberate for months to come. I said what I needed to say about that. There's no reason to dwell on that moment. However, it's important to discuss how that fiasco overshadowed what would have been a historic moment for the Academy and for so many marginalized communities all over the country. Because in the midst of the most disgraceful moment in Oscar history, Moonlight, a $1.5 million independent film without any major stars or mainstream studio support about the struggles of an African-American LGBT youth, won Best Picture at the Oscars. That is significant on a social, artistic, and political level, and it means so much for the future of the Academy going forward. They had the obvious choice right in front of them, but they went with another film that touched their hearts and minds in a profound way. As much as I may have been rooting for my favorite film of the year, I can't help but be incredibly proud and happy for everything that this means.

Moonlight's victory doesn't solve the problems of the Academy. No one film or one person can destroy everything that has defined an institution for the last 89 years. The Oscars have a long history of ignoring achievements by minorities and recognizing safe films that don't challenge their perspectives or worldviews. Moonlight doesn't mean that #OscarsSoWhite is done forever, nor does it guarantee that they'll continue to acknowledge daring films like this. But with the Academy's effort to make changes to their membership base, maybe this group is finally changing for the better. Moonlight is the first Best Picture winner with an all African-American cast, and it's also the first to come from an African-American director. That Barry Jenkins' masterpiece arrived at precisely the right moment, the moment where we were crying out for something exactly like it, almost feels like a certain kind of fate.

Last year, there was a really great sketch from Trevor Noah that struck a chord with me. Noah lamented the fact that the Academy only recognizes films about the African-American experience when it somehow relates to slavery or civil rights. Voting for films like 12 Years a Slave makes voters feel good about themselves. Sure, Steve McQueen's film is a masterpiece in every way, shape, and form. It's a vital piece of work that deserved the Oscar. But there were members who voted for that film without even watching it. And in a way, that's representative of the same kind of racism that has plagued the Academy for years. When this year began, I remember saying in a conversation that the only way for the Academy to truly show that they had learned from their mistake in future years was to choose a film that showed the African-American experience without an explicit connection to slavery or civil rights. Moonlight stuck out to me as an opportunity for the members to recognize exactly that kind of film, but never in a million years did I think it was going to happen. It was too small, too indie, too reserved. It wasn't an obvious Best Picture winner.

If you want to diminish this achievement, you can say that Moonlight only won because of political correctness or because of the climate we're living in today. But I don't believe that. I really don't. Moonlight won Best Picture because it connected with the voters on an emotional level. It touched their hearts and touched their minds. In fact, Moonlight isn't a film that makes an expressly political statement, as its apolitical nature almost inherently makes it political. Everything that others have said already is true- Moonlight is a triumph for voices that have been too long ignored, and for an experience that has been overlooked. The fact that the Academy recognized this film represents the potential for a major paradigm shift of representation and recognition in the future.

But it goes further than that. On an artistic level, Moonlight's victory symbolizes the limitless potential of cinema and the opportunity for the Academy to recognize more artistically challenging films in the future. To start- this is not a dig against La La Land. Damien Chazelle's musical masterpiece has long been dismissed as a light, meaningless piece of work, a bit of fun that doesn't have anything going on beyond the surface. That couldn't be further from the truth. Chazelle deals with crushing themes and tough ideas under the guise of a splashy musical, and the artistic power behind La La Land is thoroughly undeniable. Few films have ever connected with me on such a powerful level, and I will defend this movie until the day I die.

But throughout the entire awards season, I have been vocal in my support for Jenkins' film. I have been championing the film since I saw it back at TIFF, and I was just as moved and stunned when I saw it for a second time. Just because one of my favorites didn't win doesn't mean I can't celebrate the accomplishment of another film that I truly love. Moonlight's win is so shocking, so thoroughly unpredictable, that one can only hope it represents a shift for the Academy going forward. In years past, a film like this would have never been able to win Best Picture. If you look at the Best Picture winners from this decade, Moonlight is the best by a country mile. Over the course of the last few years, the Academy has made several picks that could be considered "safe," no matter the artistic merit of the product. 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece and Birdman is not, but they both count as safe, predictable choices for the Academy.

In past years, films like Boyhood, The Social Network, and Mad Max: Fury Road weren't able to get over the hump. Movies that were widely considered to be the best of their respective years lost out to movies like The King's Speech and Spotlight, exactly the kind of films you would expect the Academy to support. In this Oscar season, the obvious choice also happened to be a unique kind of masterpiece, a dizzying, beautiful burst of fresh air that reinvigorated a genre. This year, the obvious choice would have been a perfect, incredibly deserving Best Picture winner, maybe even the best choice out of the bunch. But what about a year in which the obvious choice was The King's Speech or The Artist, two movies that don't truly qualify as Best Picture material. The fact that the Academy finally bucked the trend of picking the film that appealed most to them on an instinctual level is monumental for the future of the institution. Even with the social and diversity implications of a Moonlight win, this is also a victory for the art form.

Maybe it means that the changing demographics of the membership base worked in an astonishing new way. The problems of the Academy aren't solved yet, but Moonlight's victory is a shocking reminder of change. It's a triumph for a filmmaker who worked tirelessly to get his vision on the screen, and it's a huge moment for A24, a studio that has quickly emerged as Hollywood's best. This is a studio that has supported films like Green Room and Swiss Army Man, mainstreaming offbeat voices that have long been ignored by the system. They worked hard for this moment, and I couldn't be happier for them.

So yeah, this year there were two perfect choices. I liked one better than the other, as did most, but you couldn't go wrong either way. But in a few years, when that action movie that we all loved beats the highly favored British period drama in a shocking Best Picture upset, we'll look back and realize that it all started here. Moonlight's win changes the game going forward. It's a new age for the Academy, and I'm happy to be living in the middle of it.

Images courtesy of A24

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