MOONLIGHT, the Oscars, and the Same Old Conversation

That ending, though. What a rollercoaster.

Before I comment on the most memorable of all memorable fuck-ups, I need to contextualize a few things, and clarify my standing on the “Moonlight vs La La Land” spectrum.

I thought La La Land was a very enjoyable, very well-done film. It’s a certain kind of film that speaks to a certain kind of audience, namely, conventional romantics who love to bask in the afterglow of big, bold, and brassy production values, and love a good paean to the wonders of showbiz, movie musicals, and beautiful people. A less delicate but still accurate assessment: it’s a white movie full of mostly white people dealing with mostly white problems (the absolute lack of conflict for most of the film’s running time is both baffling and strangely appropriate, somehow).

By contrast, Moonlight is a beautifully raw, vulnerable, and achingly compassionate film about the marginalized, their place within the world, and how they interact with and are shaped by it. Whatever your personal take on the film is (I myself slightly preferred Manchester by the Sea and Hell or High Water from the nominees pool), Moonlight is an important, powerful, and unique piece of cinema that stands out amongst its peers in a way that is truly deserving of special recognition, especially in these times when bigotry seems (emphasis on “seems”) more pronounced, visible, and mainstream than ever.

So, that’s where I fall on those two films. In the run-up to awards season, the narrative coalescing from certain critical corners was that La La Land was the milquetoast, lily-white, tone-deaf, and banal safe choice, and thus the favorite, and Moonlight was the polar opposite. While I do think the accolades heaped upon La La Land are mostly overblown, much of the criticism also seems eye-roll-worthy. One could argue that Hollywood and the Academy deserve scrutiny for constantly elevating glossy, saccharine white-people fare at the expense of more challenging and artful work, but that fury seemed to boil over into some fairly ridiculous assertions about many films this awards season (“Ryan Gosling saves jazz” and “Manchester by the Sea is about white supremacy” to name two). Disregarding the problematic nature of monochromatic Hollywood for a moment, I don’t think there’s any reason to claim that a perfectly fine solid “B” is worth downgrading to an “F” just because a bunch of boring showbiz geriatrics were (supposedly) ignoring the “A” black/queer film.

So we all know what happened with the envelope mix-up (for the most part). When Faye Dunaway blurted out “La La Land,” I wasn’t too surprised, even though director Chazelle had previously walked away with the customary “Best Director” consolation prize. I booed the screen half-heartedly, mildly annoyed. Then the truth started to dribble out, with producer Jordan Horowitz telling the audience that there had been a mix-up, and that Moonlight was the actual winner. For a few minutes, I was dumbfounded, convinced that this had all been some woefully ill-advised stunt: a pre-planned bit to show off just how woke and sensitive white Hollywood is, delivered in the same well-intentioned but ultimately tone-deaf spirit as those videos of cops pulling over black motorists to give them ice cream cones.

That turned out to not be the case, which led to a lot of sympathy for the previously vilified La La Land entourage, as they had to hand over the statuettes, envelopes, and stage to the Moonlight team. Much has been made of how well Horowitz handled what must have been a crushing situation, but the aftermath of the fiasco wound up being nearly identical to the “let’s show how sensitive we are” stunt I had imagined.

In the wake of “Envelopegate”, the post-show coverage and social media chatter essentially ignores Barry Jenkin’s brave and bold achievement altogether, along with the awards it took home, in favor of focusing on how badly the Academy screwed up and the grace of Horowitz. A Washington Post article trumpets that he’s “the truth-teller we need right now,” bending over backwards to pat the producer on the back for…what, exactly? It was a nice and even-handed gesture, for sure, but (and this is not a knock against Horowitz in the slightest) do we need to ooh and aah quite so much over somebody doing what should be minimally expected of them, especially in lieu of focusing on the movie that actually won, to say nothing of the invisible people it made visible? It’s pretty lamentable that the story being told is not that Moonlight upset the best picture race, but that La Land lost so graciously.

So my suggestion is: go and see Moonlight, get to know Barry Jenkins, focus on what he earned and achieved, and think about what this film and its acknowledgment might mean for the marginalized people of our present and our future. And maybe ask why this isn’t the conversation most of us are having.

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