In the weeks before the Oscars, people were saying a lot about Moonlight – critics in the US media, podcasters on their Twitter feeds, once-closeted friends in heartfelt Facebook posts. But in the days after the much-publicised ceremony, these conversations changed. When an on-stage kerfuffle led La La Land to be named Best Picture in Moonlight’s stead, talk diverted from the content of Barry Jenkins’ film – a tender coming of age story about black masculinity – to the theatrics of how it was recognised. The story was discussed so frequently that it barely requires synopsising. But the hallmarks are somehow both deeply inelegant and strangely movielike – the mistaken envelope, the truncated speeches, the shock announcement, the Hollywood ending for the underdog.
Of course, people were surprised, cynical and amused by the high-profile blunder. But as the La La Land team awkwardly departed from the stage, and the waves of congratulations for Moonlight arrived to replace them, the comedy of errors created an artificial divide. Some people, both in the media and at the kitchen table, rallied to defend the musical. For the film’s own warmth, and its sumptuousness, and for its success in distracting viewers from the political questions that frame and encumber our lives outside the movie theatre. But, these observations, however valid, created a dialogue that detracted from the significance of the night’s proceedings.
Essentially, the momentary mix-up installed undue value in the belief that these films are opposites, and that a win for Moonlight must come at the loss of its competitor. Yet La La Land did not lose because it could be considered a poor film; Moonlight won because it was in so many respects a rich one, and one that may make the landscape of film richer by having been recognised so powerfully. Rich with images and identities that movie-watchers have been long starved of. Rich with verisimilitude, with political resonance, and with intimacy and tension. For a film dealing so deeply in questions of sexuality, violence, and addiction, Moonlight was a triumph of restraint. Yet it was ripe with struggle, and it deserves a return to the pre-Oscars dialogue that it ignited.
The following statements seek to illustrate the subversiveness and the significance of the film being recognised by such an industry-defining awards night: Moonlight was the first film with an all-black cast to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first all-POC cast directed by a person of colour to win Best Picture. The first LGBTQI film to win Best Picture. The first film to bring home an acting Oscar for a Muslim, and an editing Oscar for an African-American. When Barry Jenkins, the film’s director, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer of the play upon which it was based, collected their award for Best Original Screenplay, it was the first time the Academy witnessed two black men, both the sons of addicts, step up to the podium with a message of inclusion and of our shared ability to overcome. In Jenkins’ words: ‘All you people who feel like there’s no mirror for you, the academy has your back, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] has your back, we have your back, and for the next four years, we will not forget you.’
Speaking about the visibility of minority communities in literature and film, the Dominican-American author Junot Diaz once stated that ‘there’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections … it’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’ By reaching out to those ‘who feel like there’s no mirror’ for them, Jenkins and McCraney created a space to normalise and celebrate the images of minorities, people habitually made into monsters and villains and curios by Hollywood’s Anglocentric lens. Moonlight is in that sense a kind of marvel. It’s a hall of mirrors – a curiosity to some, a shock to others, but a force that by necessity has brought some of Hollywood’s long-marginalised identities out of the shadows. The black community, the communities of other people of colour, the queer community, the communities that exist in and across these borders. And by representing minority experience on the majority stage and being lauded for it, Moonlight may enable the hall to grow. Perhaps in the years to come we may see ourselves again, and again, and again, as future filmmakers are given the creative freedom to reflect us in all our diversity, confirming the legitimacy of our experiences and affirming the visibility that the film industry has too long denied. The Hollywood ending for Moonlight is not a brief triumph over La La Land, but like the film itself, a slow burn – the promise that its lasting impact lies in stories soon to be told.
Bio: Jill Masters is a recent Honours graduate and the co-founder of Not Another Film Club, an ANU society dedicated to exploring and unpacking the creative work of international women of colour.