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The 2017 Oscars, Moonlight, and the continuing struggle to be heard

(This editorial contains spoilers for Moonlight)

As you almost assuredly have heard if you paid at least a lick of attention to what happened at the Oscars this year, or even just if you use social media, an unprecedented number of films (two) received the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. Of course, as the array of first-hand reactions and re-tellings of the spectacular blunder have confirmed, this was not how it was supposed to go down. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the immaculately-constructed and nostalgia-drunk ode to the lost art of the Hollywood musical was the traditionally-backed favorite for the award, but it did not truly win, despite the initial announcement from co-presenter Faye Dunaway. To the surprise of everyone who cares about the Oscars, Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, was the actual winner of the award, as voted by the Academy.

Moonlight, if you haven’t seen it, is the fragmented story of a black man growing up in Miami, Florida, and chronicles his connection to another man, Kevin, throughout three different points in his life. He goes by three different names throughout the film: Chiron, his given name, “Little,” a name forced on him by a rotating door of (believably, unfortunately) cruel schoolyard peers, and “Black,” the nickname Kevin calls him by. We see him change quite a bit alongside this continuous rearranging of his identity, but one characteristic remains constant: he doesn’t speak.

Sure, he talks, but throughout the film, and until the very last scene, we do not see him verbally acknowledge or reflect on a tender sexual encounter he has with Kevin late one night on the beach. This is the scene that drives the film, this clandestine and cathartic affirmation of Chiron’s feelings for Kevin, and it’s a moment that is felt throughout the duration of the entire piece, hanging over the events of the story unrestricted by boundaries of time (in the film’s soundtrack we prominently hear the recurring motif of waves crashing against the shore before and after the scene), and after it’s done, Chiron doesn’t talk about it until the end credits of the movie are less than a minute away. When he does finally find his voice, and tells Kevin, after reuniting with him years later, that “no one’s ever touched [him]” since that night, and that no man had ever touched him before that, it’s a hard-earned victory worthy of fireworks and popped champagne bottles. On Sunday, February 27th, Barry Jenkins and the producers of Moonlight should have enjoyed a similarly victorious opportunity of speech and visibility for the black and LGBTQ population, which is sorely needed right now. But that didn’t happen.

It was an unfortunate mishap handled with grace and integrity by all involved, with the exception of co-presenter Warren Beatty, who, god bless him, should have realized that an explanation about what went wrong could have been given later to the press, and not on stage during the broadcast, with the cast and crew of Moonlight all standing behind him, waiting for the 79-year-old white dude smiling and laughing for the cameras to stop talking and get off the stage. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz couldn’t have responded better, ceasing the speeches for his film and directly and clearly conceding the award to Moonlight. The mistake can’t reasonably be concluded to be anything other than benign human error on the part of Oscar accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, but in preventing the people behind Moonlight a clear platform to speak, it resulted in a cruelly ironic sting to the recognition of a film that depicts a profound victory for the black and LGBTQ voice.

When Jenkins finally got the time to speak in acceptance of the award, he admitted to his own struggle to give his voice to this story. “There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible,” he said. He continued; “I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story. So everybody behind me on this stage said: ‘no, that is not acceptable,” emphasizing a collective need for this story to be heard. I too agree that the story of Moonlight is one that needed to be told, which makes the way the filmmakers behind it were stifled that Sunday evening all the more troubling to me. For the moment of vocal triumph for the first black-directed, the first black-written, and the first LGBTQ film to ever win the award for Best Picture, I fear that that damage has been done. The bureaucratic slipups of the event will be the major takeaway from this historical night.
I hope to see cleaner victories for recognition and visibility at the Oscars in the years to come. Jenkins and co. will assuredly enjoy a wide range of opportunities in the years to come (Jenkins is at the time of this writing attached to an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad), films and projects that will likely be up for awards at future Oscar ceremonies. Jenkins, speaking to Variety about being a now-historical figure in black recognition at the Academy Awards, said, “I will be glad when all these firsts and thirds and fifths are a thing of the past.” I also look forward to the day when instances of equality and solidarity in the popular arts are commonplace enough to not even be worth a headline mention. But until then, just like how I was exhilarated to finally hear Chiron, I hope to experience the same excitement and honor in hearing the voices of generations of black and LGBTQ filmmakers.