Moonlight director Barry Jenkins at the 89th Annual Academy Awards.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
The wildest thing that has ever happened at the Oscars — yup, even wilder than that time in 1974 when a guy streaked naked across the stage — took place Sunday night at the end of what had, up until that point, felt like an Oscars ceremony short on shocks: While presenting Best Picture, Warren Beatty opened the envelope and then, for reasons unclear at the time, hesitated, leaving his fellow presenter, Bonnie and Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway, to announce the predicted La La Land as the winner. Cue the applause and acceptance speeches unfolding in front of increased turmoil as the ceremony's producers ran on stage. Soon, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz made his way to the mic and revealed , astonishingly, that a mistake had been made.
For a second, it looked like Horowitz was pulling an Adele at the Grammys, another white person sheepishly using their winner’s platform to acknowledge the more deserving, yet passed-over, piece of black art. But Horowitz wasn’t making a gesture, he was literally trying to correct a huge error. “This is not a joke — Moonlight has won Best Picture,” he said. For maximum drama, he grabbed the correct card out of Beatty’s hands and held it up for the camera to zoom in and confirm his words, a moment that Twitter would meme the hell out of minutes later. It was a twist ending M. Night Shyamalan (who played along on Twitter) couldn't even dream up, an immense fuckup destined to be parsed and studied like the Zapruder film. And, for many of us, it was the first time since Nov. 8 in which the world made any goddamn sense.
Ever since the presidential election, the temptation to, jokingly or otherwise, cast other collective cultural events as a re-staging of that fateful evening has been irresistible. It’s also been like the revisiting of trauma, since each one until now has played out the same way. After La La Land swept the Golden Globes, there was the Super Bowl, in which the Atlanta Falcons consistently throttled the New England Patriots — led by Trump pal Tom Brady — only for the crown to slip from their hands in a way that felt uncomfortably familiar. Then there was the Grammys, during which the aforementioned Adele incident took place. The British singer won Album, Record, and Song of the Year over Beyoncé's Lemonade, despite even Adele herself admitting Lemonade was 2016’s defining work.
It’s not like any of these were exact Trump parallels (Adele seems very nice!), but they all felt like nationally broadcast instances of whiteness reasserting its grip on a country that has been fighting its way, ever so slowly, toward a future in which whiteness does not mean a guaranteed win. And by that measure, the nail-biting last-minute Best Picture reversal wasn’t just a case of the finest film winning — it was a gratifyingly redemptive triumph.
Barry Jenkins’ compassionate, gorgeously wrought story about how a black, queer, and poor boy comes of age in Miami beat out the heavily favored La La Land, a movie whose blithe racial assumptions and fetishism for nostalgia have unfortunate connotations in the wake of an election campaign in which each had been explicitly and effectively weaponized. Moonlight, a testament to cinema’s ability to create empathy and understanding for marginalized lives, bested La La Land, a testament to its ability to serve as an escape from reality. It didn’t just feel justified — it felt necessary.
But no matter how satisfying Moonlight’s success was — and no matter how many fiery late-breaking takes on the alleged destructive force La La Land there were — Moonlight’s mangled victory isn’t actually a triumph of good over evil. Or even of the left’s triumph over the right, because let’s be real: The true conservative candidate among the Best Picture contenders would be Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (and wouldn’t that have been an upset, in every sense of the word).
Barry Jenkins accepts Best Picture for Moonlight.
Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images
The way that Moonlight and La La Land were placed in grand opposition over the course of awards season created a compelling narrative that burdened both movies with roles that were, in different ways, unfair to them. Being presented as the important, political urgent one has meant that Moonlight’s incredible aesthetics have frequently been overlooked or treated as secondary in the conversation. And La La Land — which out of awards context plays like a slight, winsome ode to a semiretired genre — got crushed under the burdens of being the overpraised representative of white supremacy.
La La Land was not the active villain of the Oscars, but it sure seemed poised, until that incredible final inning defeat, to benefit from an unjust and racist status quo. And while art doesn’t have an obligation to put real-world relevance front and center, that doesn’t mean that the melancholy dreaminess of Damien Chazelle’s musical is neutral. It felt like a “no comment” in a year that has really, really demanded a comment. Whereas Moonlight’s every choice is a statement — not just in the story it tells, but in the ways in which it envelops you in its experiences, the pain and the firework-bright moments of joy felt by its young protagonist. Its success is a milestone for representation at the Oscars, but it’s also a commemoration of remarkable artistry and depth. It’s a development destined to give a boost to a movie that could use it, that’s still only been seen by a small fraction of the country when it should be enjoyed by the widest possible audience.
What Moonlight isn’t is a sure sign of greater shifts in the industry or at awards shows: The Oscars have made steps forward in terms of diversity and recognizing artistic daring before, and followed them with steps back. The Academy Awards remain a window into how Hollywood sees itself and how it’d like to be seen, two things that are sometimes directly at odds. Because, no matter how many easy digs Jimmy Kimmel managed to slip in (or tweet) at the current administration last night, the self-assured progressivism that so much of the film industry takes for granted has been very slow to manifest in the choices that industry has made about whose stories get told and who gets to tell them. Studies from University of Southern California, Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative have not only laid bare damning statistics about who’s directing and appearing on screen in the biggest movies; they’ve also showcased how little those stats have been improving.
Mahershala Ali accepts the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Moonlight.
Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images
The trouble with attaching meaning to the Oscars is that they are, in the end, only a highly selective, imperfect, subjective reflection of what’s actually happened in a cinematic year. Moonlight was always going to be one of 2016’s most significant films — getting the big award doesn’t change that, but just confirms what everyone already knew.
What will actually be significant is what comes next, for the cast and crew of Moonlight and for so many other actors and filmmakers, in terms of what’s funded and who’s put on screen. The Academy Awards aren’t a re-legislation of the larger battle for America’s soul — they’re another temperature check, an evening in which Mahershala Ali could have a historic moment as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, give a beautiful, heartfelt speech, and still have to smile through Kimmel making multiple dumb cracks about his name. No matter how good the movies may be, it’s still Trump’s America we’re living in.