The Particularly LGBT Drama of the ‘Moonlight’ Best Picture Oscar Victory
Moonlight’ won Best Picture at last night’s Oscars, with explosive drama attached—echoing the nature of LGBT political advances in recent years.
As chaos flowed in the closing moments of the Oscars telecast last night around Moonlight’s victory as Best Picture after Warren Beatty’s wincing flub momentarily deprived them of it, a few thoughts occurred to this viewer.
Overarching all of those clashing thoughts, spooling from the general WTF-ery of the whole debacle: would somebody please make way, or get out of the way, and make space and time for someone from Moonlight to have their full and proper moment up there? This is their moment, not yours, so all of you—including smirking Jimmy Kimmel—just get off that stage. ABC, hold your local news broadcasts. We can wait.
It wasn’t just that a black, LGBT-themed movie was making history winning Best Picture, it was that it was being robbed of this glorious moment in the chaos of a moment of error. Moonlight’s Oscars victory is a cultural and political landmark, and it was not allowed to bloom as it should.
Instead, Hollywood immediately started gorging on its very own Zapruder mystery—and yet another significant LGBT cultural moment came loaded with explosive drama. An LGBT victory is rarely a calm, clean one—“battling for LGBT rights,” as the phrase goes, is precisely that and has bought many of its fighters scars. And so it was last night, too.
If this were a movie itself, the audience at home was cheering the intervention of Jordan Horowitz, La La Land’s producer, holding aloft the correct piece of card with Moonlight’s name on it, as if—grave injustice perpetrated—he had the proof of the same, and would now avenge it.
The stakes were even odder for the admirable Horowitz, as his film had been incorrectly badged as the winner, and here he was saying the name of the real winner so damn clearly. His film hadn’t won, and that he wanted his “friends” of Moonlight to collect what was rightfully theirs was moving and cheering. Horowitz’s outrage, and also his pride in Moonlight, was palpable, and he also knew the telecast was running out of time to right it.
It was a lovely moment because it was a moment of true, human decency. And because there are so few of those to behold these days, it struck home.
OK, this is movies not politics, but Horowitz’s determination to do the right thing, for the right reason, and with a tone of voice that resounded with correcting an injustice was stirring and resonant: a good guy does good moment.
Then there was dear Warren Beatty, who in the gap of time it took for the shocked cast and crew of Moonlight to reach the stage decided that this was the best moment to state his mea culpa. One felt for Beatty—he had been handed the wrong envelope, from whence the confusion flowed, and he wanted to explain himself but couldn’t—but could somebody not have gently shunted him aside and let Barry Jenkins or Tarell Alvin McCraney have their victorious moment, unencumbered.
The manner of Moonlight’s Best Picture victory, the mess and drama of that victory, is today at least—though perhaps not forever—as memorable as the artistry behind its success. Hopefully it will lead more people to see it. It is heartening to see so many headlines today hammering home its brilliance.
There is also an odd political symmetry to last night’s events. LGBT rights advances have been similarly dramatic in recent years, tending to fall just before Pride in late June, and after years of emotional, dedicated politicking against a prevailing backdrop of bigotry and discrimination.
On June 24, 2011, marriage equality was legalized in New York. On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional in a 5-4 vote; and two years later on the same date, the Supreme Court again ruled 5-4 that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.
These dramatic, pivotal political moments echoed Moonlight’s win last night. It may have been an administrative error, but the injustice and righting of that injustice was a microcosm of the struggles that Moonlight evokes; of how its lead character comes to take his place in the world, to lay his claim to love, belonging, and self-respect.
Moonlight, a movie about the hard life, and even harder path to self-acceptance, of a black, gay man, won Best Picture in a year when the marginalized have never felt more marginalized, and where minority rights have never felt more imperiled in the United States. Its victory comes as that run of dramatic political victories on the eves of Pride—and those victories almost 50 years after the Stonewall Riots—feel ever more equivocal.
If the fight is far from over, Moonlight’s very literal fight—even having won the damn Oscar—to take its place on the stage, to claim its rightful reward, becomes even more symbolically important. Its victory is an implicit body-blow to the forces of bigotry seeking to do harm to, and roll back the rights of, minorities. McCraney himself, collecting the Oscar for adapted screenplay, said, “This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don't see themselves. We're trying to show you you and us. So thank you, thank you, this is for you.”
Later Sunday night, on E! and ABC’s “after-show party” programs, the Moonlight cast and crew did appear, and looked as shell-shocked as one might expect, and certainly as much as hosts and viewers at home felt.
But they did not mirror, at least on camera, the shock-and-awe tones of hosts, trying to make sense of the envelope error. Instead, director Barry Jenkins graciously accepted congratulations, and sought to focus attention on their pride in the film. And as that film will no doubt head back into cinemas, surfing its rightful Best Picture victory, that may be a canny strategy.
Still, Moonlight did not have its Best Picture moment on the Oscars stage, and that gap of recognition is also symbolic when one considers its subject matter and cultural import. Not only did Moonlight miss out on its moment in the sun, the world did not hear from its makers in that moment either—their joy, pride, and messages—personal, political, and otherwise—to the world watching.
If the mess of the claiming of its prize seems outrageous and out of the ordinary to you, it wasn’t so outrageous—not at the back of our minds—to LGBT viewers watching, mirroring as it did the vexed trajectory of LGBT civil rights advances themselves. The mistake may have been clerical and silly, but the significance of Moonlight, and its own battle to claim its place, stands for a bigger battle.
If it seems nutty that the wrong film was named as Best Picture in those bizarre few seconds, also consider how outrageous it is that, in 2017, the victory of a black, LGBT-themed film at the Oscars should be considered historic. But it is, and the magnitude of that moment was lost last night—unforgivably so.
If you are outraged for Moonlight—the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee of this year—then support it and others like it. Moonlight’s victory means, alongside the threats posed to LGBT equality, that the political and cultural struggle goes on.
Let the victory of Moonlight mean more films swim in its wake. And if those films are good enough, let them have their moment of clean, unmessed-up victory in primetime on Oscars night. Moonlight did not, but its victory may yet prove resonant for all the best reasons.