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2017 Oscars Follow-Up: How did Moonlight Topple La La Land?

Moonlight movie review

I needed a lot of time to think, and it’s been almost two weeks since it went down, but as you probably already know, the 89th Academy Awards ended with a bit of a catastrophic disaster that resulted in the wrong envelope being handed to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who read off the winner for Best Picture, La La Land.

As Beatty later revealed, he had been handed a duplicate of the Best Actress in a Leading Role envelope, so when it said Emma Stone, La La Land at first he was silent, then upon turning the card over to Faye, she announced La La had won.  Within two minutes, technicians and stagehands took the stage and removed the Oscars from the producers of La La Land and the proper Best Picture envelope was given to Beatty, but producer Justin Horowitz beat him to the punch and held up the card inside the envelope for all to see.

So now we are left to wonder, just how in the hell did such an outside contender take down the favorite?  How did a film that had the steam with it from last August to now suddenly fall apart?  Well, I have a couple of theories, and a lot of them will be largely impacted by my personal views and opinions, so I will say if you want to, you can read my reviews for both La La Land and Moonlight, and I’ll get started with what I felt led to Moonlight‘s victory.

1. The Race Card and #oscarssowhite

The Academy Awards for both 2015 and 2016 were the first in several years, you have to go back to 1998 and 1999’s Academy Awards before you get another pair of years like this, that no person of color was nominated in the acting categories, prompting the hashtag oscars so white.

Now back at the Academy Awards of 2015, we had films like Selma (2014), Get on Up (2014) and Beyond the Lights (2014) in the Oscar race, and these three films were the only ones which focused on people of color or had an African-American in a lead role, and of those three, Selma was the only one to be nominated for Best Picture, and it only had one other nomination, Original Song, the same category where Beyond the Lights got its only nomination, and Get on Up didn’t get any nominations whatsoever.

Similarly, at the 2016 Academy Awards, only four films featuring non-caucasians in leading roles  were in the hunt for Academy love: Straight outta Compton (2015), Concussion (2015), Beasts of No Nation (2015) and Creed (2015).  In the end, Compton got an Original Screenplay nomination, Creed was nominated for Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone, and the other two were shut out.

Now in my opinion, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not hold the responsibility of getting films featuring people of color nominated.  That it up to the studio heads and independent producers to make them; after all, they green-light the films, not the Academy itself.  It’s not like there’s a quota the voters have to meet, and each academy voter does their picking of the nominees and winners individually.  It’s not like there’s a committee that picks the nominees.

So anyways, after two years the liberals of Hollywood had had enough, and even Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs went out of her way to shoo away old white guys from voting and bring in young and more diverse voters.  Now whether it was their votes that directly led to Moonlight winning or not, we’ll never know, because the tallies and who picked what are never publicly announced or discussed.  Anyways, I got the vibe from some in the last days before the Oscars that Moonlight being the second-most nominated film of the year wasn’t enough: it HAD to win Best Picture or else the Academy had failed again, which brings me back to my point: these things are picked subjectively.

There shouldn’t be a quota of this many black winners, this many white winners; the best film or performance in each category should win, and outside factors like race and politics should not influence the voters.  I’m sure those thoughts of it had to win are a very small portion of the fanbase of the movie, and there’s a large fanbase for the film, and as I said in my review, it’s a movie I admired a lot, even if I didn’t outright love it.

2. PGA, DGA, BAFTA’s Don’t Matter, I Guess

Still, how does a movie win the PGA, DGA, BAFTA, and sweep the Globes and still lose Best Picture at the Oscars?  Nothing like this has ever happened before.  La La Land was also loved at the Guild Awards, where it won an award at just about every guild, with the exception of the Writer’s Guild, where it lost to Moonlight.  Coincidentally this was the last major guild before the Academy Awards, and may serve in the future as the first warning sign that La La Land wasn’t going to take home the top prize.  Meanwhile, Moonlight was nominated at all the places La La won for the most part (most of the guilds didn’t recognize it) and it did win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture: Drama, but still the math isn’t there for La La losing after such a strong showing throughout the awards season.

Think about this: at the SAG Awards, the Outstanding Ensemble award did not include La La Land as a nominee, whereas Moonlight was.  You’d think that with La La out, the second-most appreciated film would have an easy victory, but no, Hidden Figures took home the top award.  That doesn’t line up.  This just adds to the reasoning as to why I’m so quick to jump on outside factors like race as the leading reason, maybe, that mostly white film La La Land lost.

3. Moonlight‘s Sudden Love

I know there are a lot of people out there who weren’t as thrilled with La La Land and absolutely loved Moonlight, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if a lot of you who are reading this now feel this way, and as I said earlier, the voters at the Academy Awards pick out their winners individually and subjectively vote for the best film.  So if it just so happened that that’s the way that Moonlight won, just having enough #1 votes, then I guess that’s the way it happened, but I think the voting bodies at the PGA, DGA, BAFTA, and Globe overlap significantly with the Academy, and that’s why a film like Birdman (2014) can win SAG, PGA and DGA and win Best Picture, or 12 Years a Slave (2013) which took home the Globe for Drama, BAFTA, and tied at PGA, and that won Best Picture without the new voting body that selected Moonlight.  Hmm, maybe they weren’t such racists after all.

I don’t recall an outcry from the African-American community in Hollywood when Argo (2012) was beating Django Unchained (2012) at that year’s Oscars, or Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) or Life of Pi (2012) that all featured diverse casts whereas Argo was practically 100% white.  Hmm.  Or nobody threw a fit when the all-white film The Artist (2011) beat out The Help (2011), which won SAG.  Argo, the year before, swept just about everywhere.  Sure, there were tons of people who like the movie, but the atmosphere out there the days before the Oscars saying it was a shame that Moonlight was going to lose Best Picture.  I might disagree with that, but still it now looks like some people had prior knowledge and had the foresight but made it sound like it couldn’t happen to make a bigger splash out of it.  Now I’m digging into conspiracy theory territory, so I’ll back my way out of this one.

The point I’m trying to make: it seems everybody was saying it was a shame La La Land would win, but just before the Awards ceremony.  I didn’t hear very many people back in January, right after the nominations were announced, saying it’s a shame La La Land got 14 nominations but then Moonlight only got 8, or after the Golden Globes, when La La Land won 7 awards and Moonlight won 1, but everybody wanted to talk about and praise the fact that La La Land won 7 awards.  It was so inconsistent with what happened at the end of February when everybody boarded the Moonlight train.  I don’t live in LA, where a lot of stuff with the Oscars and awards season goes down, so if I missed something, let me know, but since when did we go from loving La La Land  and 7 awards wasn’t enough to all of a sudden Moonlight being the film that should win everything and La La Land being ridiculed and saying that the producers of La La Land were shamefully on stage giving acceptance speeches?

I feel like I could go on for hours, but I feel like I’ve made my point: I feel there’s a lot more here than just Moonlight maybe being the favorite film of the year for the voters.  One thing I didn’t discuss yet: looking back, Moonlight did win a lot of regional awards, like Best Film at LA Film Critics Awards, amongst others, and the Independent Spirit Awards.  Sure, I can’t dispute that, and I won’t dispute there are a lot of fans of the movie out there, again you may think I’m totally overthinking this, and in perspective, it’s a really different movie to be included on the list of Best Picture winners.  First LGTBQ film, first all-African-American cast, and I’ll bet it came close to being the first African-American director to win Best Director, and those kind of firsts I’m down for. Realistically, the African-American filmmaker has not been rewarded historically in the past by this Academy, and to see this film in particular recognized, it’s something that changes the horizon for where the Academy may go in the future.

I don’t necessarily agree with everybody saying it’s the only movie that should have won.  I say La La LandManchester by the SeaHacksaw Ridge, and Hidden Figures were all better films that I would have ranked above Moonlight if I were casting my votes, but regardless I’m really fine with it winning Best Picture.  It’s a fine film, one that spotlights lives that we don’t always see in this same way in either Hollywood or independent films.

Basically if anything but Arrival or Lion won Best Picture, I would have been fine with it, but still I do have to say there’s more to the story than just “this was the right film to win” and “if you didn’t vote for this you’re homophobic or racist or both” or “it just was everyone’s favorite”.  I really think there is a possibility that some voters were tempted to vote for Moonlight because of the #oscarssowhite reaction or some of the short quotes above, and I’m not saying that’s all that happened, I can’t stress that enough, but if some of these were the real reasons, this, in my humble opinion, is not progress for the Academy’s choice of what film wins Best Picture.  It’s regression.  It’s a “this film wins or else” mentality, and it’s just strange to me to see so many people acting so positively to so many African Americans winning and being nominated this year, all of them deserved, absolutely, but so many people react positively to that but then there’s no backlash to the shutout of Latino, Native American, or Asian-American actors, writers, or directors being nominated.  Even when the selection was thin to choose from in previous years, every liberal complained.  Eh, I guess that’s the cynical nature of Hollywood.

One thing is in one day then out the next.

I feel like this blog is ending on a really negative note, so let me go back to the positives just to close it out.

La La Land might have been the film I thought would win, the film I personally wanted to win if Manchester by the Sea was out, and the film I had been touting to win since August, so it would have been neat to see it hold all the way through.  But with Moonlight winning the award, even without a large number of Oscar wins at its side, it’s a sign that the Oscars could be heading back into the stage we haven’t seen in close to twenty-five years: one where you don’t have online, other media, and published predictions being absolutely the way things go.  This will make, hopefully, the next few years of trying to predict the Oscars fun and challenging.  I know and knew before Sunday, February 26th that nothing ever goes 100% to plan, and now going by what everyone is saying won’t benefit you.  It’s like March Madness: nobody has ever gotten a perfect bracket, and maybe nobody should.  Maybe there is a sense of unpredictability that Oscars had years ago that should return.  I mean, not everybody thought Braveheart (1995) was the favorite in the day, and that surprised, and there’s others, but that one’s sticking out in my mind.  I mean, if Moonlight can win Best Picture with all of the elements working against it, anything can happen.

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I am a gigantic movie nerd who spends his free time memorizing Oscar winners and nominees and seeing as many good movies as I can. I have always wanted to write about films, review films, and speculate on films, and hope that this site helps me get a couple of people who can agree or disagree with me.