At this year’s Academy Awards, we had heroes to rally around, like the people responsible for Moonlight, a heartbreakingly good indie drama with a tiny budget and a big heart. The story of a queer black man’s coming of age in Miami, the film gained momentum last year thanks to stellar reviews, a characteristically impressive campaign from A24, and word of mouth. And we had a villain to unite against as well, in the form of the too-whimsical La La Land, a retro, occasionally charming movie musical that’s easy to dislike for a number of reasons, not least because it seemed desperate to be perceived as risk-taking.
Still, the majority of the zillion-hour-long Oscars broadcast ranged from bland to cringe-worthy, save for a couple standout acceptance speeches, including Viola Davis’s, which moved many to tears, and a statement written by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, in which he cited Trump’s immoral immigration policies as his reason for boycotting the event. But then, in the 11th hour, we got what was perhaps the most thrilling five minutes in Oscar history. When screen legends Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announced La La Land as the winner of Best Picture, the night’s biggest prize, the news came as a surprise to exactly no one. It was already late in the night on the East Coast, and a lot of people I know immediately turned off their TVs.
But after La La Land’s cast and crew assembled on stage, something weird happened. A man in a headset appeared, fussing with red envelopes. The Rock raised an eyebrow. Michelle Williams grabbed the hand of platonic soulmate Busy Phillips. Meryl Streep’s jaw dropped. Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes clutched his heart. There had been a mixup: La La Land hadn’t actually won, and the year’s real best picture was a movie called Moonlight.
I screamed in disbelief, and my phone blew up: a genuinely radical bit of filmmaking came out on top, and it felt great to watch it unfold in real time. It was a victory for writer and director Barry Jenkins, and for storytellers. Moonlight, the first LGBTQ best picture, is a reminder that a narrative film can change the way you see the world, and its beautifully messy Oscars triumph feels like a win for movie lovers everywhere.
Some people think Moonlight, which also took home trophies for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, deserved a more graceful, conventional victory. And that could be true, but what happened was iconic in its own way. There’s never been a movie quite like Moonlight; maybe a normal happy ending wouldn’t have cut it.