DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK
‘Moonlight’ Is the Greatest Oscars Underdog in History
From its tiny budget to its subject matter, everything seemed stacked against Moonlight winning Best Picture. Here are all the ways it defied the odds to beat La La Land.
The biggest shock of Sunday night’s unprecedented Oscars slip-up wasn’t that La La Land was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner instead of Moonlight, which actually won. It was that Moonlight had won at all.
It wasn’t because Moonlight wasn’t the year’s best film. By so many metrics—even those that can't be measured, like the feeling it elicits, the cultural power it holds, and its significance—it deserved to win. The argument even holds if you’re a numbers person: its 98 percent “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes score bests all of the other Best Picture nominees.
(La La Land scored 93 percent, behind Manchester by the Sea’s 96 percent and Hell or High Water’s 98 percent as well.)
But ask anyone who’s followed the Academy Awards since…well, since ever, and they’ll tell you that the year’s Best Picture doesn’t always win. In fact, it usually never does.
More remarkable about Moonlight’s victory though is how, despite its critical accolades and meaningfulness, the odds were stacked against its Best Picture win perhaps more than any other previous honoree in the category.
It might be the greatest underdog story in Oscars history.
From a sheer statistical and financial standpoint, that Moonlight found its way to the Oscar stage at all is astounding.
It was made for just $1.6 million, for starters. (For what it’s worth, La La Land had a $30 million budget. Arrival, the most expensive fellow nominee, cost $47 million. Lion, the least expensive, cost $12 million, more than 10 times what Moonlight had to work with.)
Other micro-budget films have made it into Best Picture before (2013’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was made for just $1.8 million, 2011’s Winter’s Bone cost $2 million), but they’ve never won before.
This is not the first time that the Best Picture nominee with the lowest budget won the category. The Artist pulled off the feat in 2012 and Slumdog Millionaire did in 2009—though you’d have to stretch back to 2000’s American Beauty and 1991’s Dances With Wolves for sporadic examples before that.
But those films were all made for more than $15 million, adjusting for inflation. That Moonlight won with such a small budget is historic.
Then there’s its box-office gross. Moonlight made $22 million at the box office. When you adjust all previous Best Picture winners for inflation, that makes it the second-lowest total ever for a Best Picture winner, behind 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Unlike Moonlight, though, it wasn’t the lowest-grossing nominee that year. That was A Serious Man.
In every financial metric, then, Moonlight’s win is an unusual circumstance. While Best Picture rarely goes to the nominee that made the most money, it almost never goes to the one with a gross this low.
There are so many other figures to marvel at.
Moonlight star Naomie Harris, for example, shot her entire role in just three days. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars. Compare that to, say, the category’s winner, Viola Davis, who played her Fences role on Broadway before bringing it to screen. Or Best Actress winner Emma Stone, who had months of rehearsal before shooting La La Land.
A movie made for this little money and in this little time, but which manages to produce performances and imagery this powerful, without leaving an audience member wanting for anything a bigger budget may have provided, is special. Rarely do films this small get a spotlight this big.
That’s part of what led to skepticism that it could pull off a win. So did the tidal wave of support that seemed to be in La La Land’s favor, cresting with the film tying the Academy record for most nominations. Both All About Eve and Titanic, the films it tied with, took home Best Picture.
But these are all facts and figures that mask the biggest reason Moonlight’s win seemed unlikely: this was a film about the black experience.
Moonlight is about a young gay black man’s struggle to come to terms with his identity in the face of the cultural, familial, societal, and institutional barriers impeding him from doing so. La La Land is an homage and reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical—Hollywood loves nothing more than rewarding movies about itself—with two cherubic white leads and a major plot point exalting a white savior. Well, maybe Hollywood actually loves rewarding that more.
It’s no secret that the Academy has an incorrigible track record when it comes to recognizing and rewarding stories about minority experiences, be it stories to do with race, sexuality, or identity. Look no further than its spurning of Brokeback Mountain a decade ago, and then its two consecutive years of failing to nominate a single actor of color, despite there being scores of worthy contenders.
It takes a story told with as much specificity as Moonlight to reverberate universally, and yet the Academy has never seemed to catch on to that.
Only one Best Picture winner before Moonlight has centered around the black experience, and it was 12 Years a Slave. (When The Color Purple was nominated for a year-best 11 Oscars at the 1986 ceremony, it famously won zero awards.)
But Moonlight was not a film that focused on a slave narrative, or a white savior narrative as other big Academy players involving race have done (the less said about Crash the better). This was a modern film that lived in its race and its queerness and made those things beautiful and complicated and worthy of seeing. Everything about the Academy’s past would have had us believe that it was not interested in seeing it.
During Sunday night’s telecast Jimmy Kimmel made a crack about how nobody—ostensibly referring to both the people in the auditorium as well as the viewers at home—had seen Moonlight. Saturday Night Live mocked the same thing, with Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong’s characters giving on-the-nose excuses for not seeing it: “I want to, but I just can’t get myself to go.” “I just know that it’s going to be a whole thing.”
That “whole thing” is the conversation I’ve had with many friends and colleagues. They expect Moonlight to be emotional and meaningful, but they fear that it won’t resonate, you know, for them. Oscars history suggests voters would’ve felt the same way, maybe not even picking up the screener. And the louder the La La Land so-called backlash grew, the more obstinate the film’s supporters seemed to become.
There’s been this idea that thinking Moonlight deserved the Oscar over La La Land constituted hating La La Land. That’s not necessarily true.
La La Land was a lovely film—albeit a flawed and perhaps overhyped one—that offered an escapism and a buoyancy that was also needed in this last year, which is a fair argument for its power. But it’s hard to take seriously any design that its power was more forceful than Moonlight’s. And across the board, and even with its micro budget, I’d venture that the filmmaking in Moonlight exceled in nearly every metric.
But don’t call Moonlight a Cinderella story. Cinderella exists in a fairy tale. The reason Moonlight matters is because of how undeniably it exists in a modern reality. That’s why this win matters.
It came at a time when our country is radiating cultural discord, hate, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia not just to the rest of the world, but also inward at itself. Film is our greatest cultural export. At a time like this, it sends a message that the story ruled most worth sharing, the one that represents us and our values, is a plea for empathy and understanding of a black and queer experience.
It sends a message, and is a vital reminder.