SANTA MONICA, California – Oscar night is unlikely to be all that favorable towards Moonlight—Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali and possibly an adapted screenplay award are its best bets—but the day before the Academy closes out awards season, Barry Jenkins’s masterpiece cleaned up at the more freewheeling and casual Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica.
In addition to picking up the Robert Altman Award for its ensemble, Moonlight won every other category in which it was nominated, taking home a total of six statues, including Best Feature, Best Directing, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. During a La La Land-free award show, Moonlight was king.
The film, which cost just $1.5 million and has brought in over $21 million in box office receipts, also cemented its status as the favorite film of the year among the event’s diverse attendees.
Before I could finish asking The Wire’s Andre Royo what film he was rooting for at this award show as wells as at the Oscars, he said, “Moonlight is the best film of the year.” He not only praised the filmmakers, but also the audiences who turned out to see it. “Back in the day, there wouldn’t have been that broad of an audience,” he said of the movie that tells the story of a black gay man during three distinct periods in his life. He was still holding out hope that it could beat La La Land for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Kerry Washington expressed a similar sentiment when she presented the ensemble award to Moonlight during the ceremony, breaking from her script to declare, “Oh dear Lord, I love this movie.” Like Altman, she said, “Until it existed, we didn’t know we wanted it. But now that it’s here, we know we need it. And in witnessing it, we are forever transformed.”
Jenkins left the political speechifying to his writing partner Tarell Alvin McCraney, who penned the play on which Moonlight was based. There were a lot of actors, he said, who “pushed that script away from them, saying that it might affect their career in the long run.” He praised the actors in the film like André Holland and Trevante Rhodes for finding the “truth in the story we were telling,” and telling it well.
The Independent Spirit Awards has long been the most diverse award show on the scene in Hollywood, a fact that was especially evident during the past two years of #OscarsSoWhite. Even this year, when the Academy course-corrected and nominated a record seven actors of color, including Lion’s Dev Patel, the Spirits represented an even more diverse group of nominees and winners.
There was Andrew Ahn, who accepted the John Cassavetes Award, which recognizes films that cost under $500,000, for Spa Night, who thanked his parents for accepting their “gay Korean-American son.” And Toni Erdmann’s Maren Ade who accepted the Best International Film Award by saying she’s proud to be a female director, because it’s “still not normal enough.”
Starting with Meryl Streep’s fiery speech against Donald Trump at January’s Golden Globe Awards, this has been perhaps the most political awards season in history, a trend that Spirit Award hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney openly mocked during the opening of the show. Given the liberal IFC audience watching at home, they said the winner would be better off whispering their political messages to themselves in the bathroom mirror than projecting them out into the world on stage.
Speaking to any conservatives who might be watching, Kroll said, “No, we are not in a bubble. We are in a tent filled with fringe artists on a California beach. If this room leaned any further to the left, we would literally topple into the Pacific Ocean.”
When Casey Affleck, who is still just barely the Best Actor frontrunner over Fences’ Denzel Washington at the Oscars, accepted his award for Manchester by the Sea, he acknowledged this fact, but nonetheless attempted to capitalize on his moment in the spotlight to put forward a larger message.
“I should just whisper it to myself in the bathroom, and I have whispered it to myself in the bathroom,” Affleck, who wore a blue ACLU ribbon on his blazer, said. But since his kids don’t listen to him unless he’s speaking on TV, he added, “The policies of this administration are abhorrent and they will not last.” Oscar voting is long over at this point, so that galvanizing message is not going to help his chances Sunday night.
That strongly-worded statement echoed one made by Best Documentary nominee Ava DuVernay, who was asked on the red carpet before the show what she thought about President Trump’s executive order rescinding federal protections for transgender students. “It’s abhorrent. Shame on him,” she said.
In general, there wasn’t too much hesitation by nominees and others to speak out or let their views be known, despite any potential fears of being labeled “overrated” by the president.
American Honey’s Sasha Lane rocked a bold “Black Lives Matter” jersey. Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, the Iranian director of documentary nominee Sonita, said she was going to stay home in protest after Trump’s immigration ban, but once it was lifted decided she would travel to the U.S. just to spite him.
And Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, who wrote and directed Molly Shannon to the Best Supporting Actress win in Other People, said he doesn’t think there’s anything controversial about speeches like the one made by Streep. “It’s crazy to me when it’s like, ‘How dare she say everyone should be treated equally?’”
There will likely be just as many politically-charged speeches at the Oscars on Sunday. But if La La Land wins as many awards as expected, the show won’t deliver nearly as inclusive a statement as the Spirit Awards did the day before. This was Moonlight’s time to shine, and it could not have shone brighter.