Let’s Not Forget ‘Moonlight’ Made History In the Most Diverse Oscars Yet
A small indie movie about black queer romance was named Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday night. Let that sink in for a moment.
You might have forgotten about that fact since the bulk of the conversation around the Oscars today has focused on the snafu that found La La Land winning Best Picture before immediately losing to the correct winner, Moonlight. It was the craziest moment in Academy Awards history, and one that led to what will surely be one of the most famous photos in Oscar history. I won’t lie, I shouted a few expletives of shock and confusion at the TV as the chaos was unraveling on the crowded Dolby Theatre stage, before the incredibly beautiful and tear-filled reactions from the Moonlight cast (and others). As our own Matt Singer wrote, that mishap also gave way to a rare moment where the Oscars became less about simply winning and losing. But a lot of the focus on the envelope mix-up has come at the expense of Moonlight‘s triumphant win, and how groundbreaking the rest of the night was for people of color, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community.
The most incredible story to come out of Sunday night is that the 2017 Oscars were the most diverse in awards season history. It was a night full of milestones, and marked the most Oscar wins for black talent (a total of five winners in four categories) in a single year. But the awards also made history before the ceremony began. After two years where the Academy failed to nominate a single black performer, this year’s nominees marked the first time a black actor was nominated in each acting category, the first time six black performers had been nominated in one year, and the first time three black women were recognized in the Best Supporting Actress category. (Viola Davis won the latter prize, making her the first black actor to have an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony to her name.) Even if Moonlight had lost to La La Land, it would have been groundbreaking for a tiny film about growing up black and queer in America (not to mention a film with zero white characters) to earn eight nominations.
But Moonlight did win, and that is monumental. The film, which was made for a mere $1.5 million, became the first LGBTQ movie to win Best Picture. That’s a big deal for an awards show that has a long history of snubbing queer cinema (remember how Carol got shut out of Best Picture altogether?). That the Academy voted for a love story about two black boys is huge.
Moonlight‘s win is a big chip in the wall that’s long held marginalized identities back from gaining the same opportunities as as their straight white counterparts. Now there’s a clear incentive for studios to invest in stories they otherwise might have passed on, and to takes chances on scripts outside of traditional Oscar fare. It’s hard to know how the industry will react to Moonlight‘s win, but it’s a sign of hope for a more diverse slate of future films.
The film’s other wins also mark major milestones in Oscar diversity. Mahershala Ali became only the fifth black performer to win the Best Supporting Actor prize and the very first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, something powerful in light of President Trump’s Muslim ban. (Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who won Best Foreign Film for The Salesman, didn’t attend the ceremony in protest of Trump’s executive order on immigration.) Ali’s role as Juan challenged stereotypes of hyper-masculine drug dealers by infusing the character with compassion and tenderness. How often do you see a drug dealer tell a young boy it’s okay to be gay?
When the film won Best Adapted Screenplay, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney used their acceptance speech to speak to marginalized communities. “For all the people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you,” Jenkins said, “that your life isn’t reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back. And for four years, we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.” McCraney also took time to mention gender non-conforming folks in his speech, a small but powerful inclusion following Laverne Cox’s similar words at the Grammys. Some may shrug off the Oscars as a silly ceremony about privileged celebrities, but speeches like Jenkins and McCraney’s could make a huge difference to a young queer black kid watching at home.
That isn’t to say the Oscars were a perfect example inclusion and diversity, or that the industry is suddenly fixed; far from it. The Academy is taking steps forward, but they’re small ones. Zero female filmmakers or cinematographers were nominated this year in the Director and Cinematography categories, and the Academy still has a long way when it comes to recognizing actors of Asian, Hispanic, and Native American descent, as well as more queer and transgender talent above and below the line.
La La Land didn’t need the box-office boost that comes with winning an Oscar. (At $340 million worldwide, the Damien Chazelle musical is going to be just fine. It might even be remembered more fondly now that it’s lost the Best Picture award.) Moonlight, the lowest-grossing film of the nine Best Picture nominees, has now acquired a cultural longevity that guarantees it will be talked about and seen by many more audiences for years to come.
America is currently a scary place for anyone who’s not white, straight, cisgender, and male. With LGBTQ protections and rights threatened and with people of color living in fear, art that elevates the voices and stories of minorities is more necessary now than ever. Moonlight didn’t need to win any awards to be validated as a phenomenal movie; most of us already knew that. But with the Academy’s stamp of approval, Hollywood is essentially saying that black and queer stories are deserving of acclaim and attention. As obvious as that is to many of us, it could make a difference with American audiences who may have otherwise skipped seeing Moonlight in a theater.
A young black boy or a queer child now has the chance to grow up knowing a story about someone who resembles them was named the best film of the year, and that the voices of black and queer artists were welcomed and celebrated by Hollywood. The industry still has a lot of work to do, but if Chiron’s story can make it all the way to the Dolby stage and onto the screens of more American multiplexes, then somehow the world feels a little more hopeful.