The takeaway story from 2017’s Oscar night will obviously be that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were handed the wrong envelope, and accidentally awarded Best Picture to the wrong film. Live. On the air. In front of a billion people. La La Land was the winner for a brief moment, before Beatty and Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel stepped in to correct the matter, and passed the statues over to the correct winners, the makers of Moonlight. This is a story that will be referenced for decades and decades, ranking, as it does, as the biggest single flub in the history of the Academy.
The size of this story is a bit of a pity, however, as Moonlight‘s win marks not only several important milestones on its own, but also displays an unusual piece of cultural synchronicity on the part of the Academy voters; not only was Moonlight called the best film of the year, it actually was – if you ask critics – the best film of the year. You’d be surprised how infrequently that happens.
Moonlight‘s milestones are, as I said, significant. Moonlight is the first Best Picture winner to be made for as little money as it was, having the lowest budget (adjusted for inflation) of any film to win the category; Moonlight was reportedly made for $1.5 million, beating out 2009’s The Hurt Locker, made for $15 million. Moonlight is also only the second film with a predominantly black cast to win Best Picture (following Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2012), and Mahershala Ali, who won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, is the first Muslim to win an acting Academy Award. Other Muslims have won awards in other categories, however, including this year’s Asghar Farhadi (in the Best Foreign Film category for The Salesman, and who previously won for A Separation) as well as the Pakistani documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who has won twice in the Documentary Short category, in 2012 and 2016.
Moonlight also sets a new precedent in that its one of many recent films to win Best Picture while failing to win Best Director. There was a time when it seemed like a pretty foregone concept: If you win Best Director, you also win Best Picture. 10, 15, 20 years ago, it was practically a sure shot. The two categories went hand-in-hand. However, this once-traditional pattern has only held one time in the last five years (when Alejandro González Iñárritu won for directing Birdman). It seems that, with Moonlight‘s win, the categories are officially uncoupled.
Moonlight is also the first Best Picture winner to feature a gay man as its protagonist. There have been several other Best Picture nominees to feature LGBTQIA+ characters in lead roles (Brokeback Mountain, Milk, The Imitation Game, The Kids are All Right, The Hours, etc.), but Moonlight is the first to win. LGBTQIA+ characters have been common in movies for years now, having struggled through erasure, broad stereotypes, cliché sissies, and outright villainy in the past. Moonlight, however, is the first film that is largely about the gay experience that has been so widely recognized. This is an incredible boon. Indeed, Moonlight‘s win may be the most progressive selection ever made by the Academy.
But even beyond that, Moonlight is unlike most other Best Picture winners, as it eschews glamour. Moonlight is a quiet, small, realistic film about small moments, angry glances, and unspoken emotions. Not all Best Picture winners are necessarily epic in scope, but the vast bulk of them are possessed of an ineffable cinematic sheen; a slick glimmer of modern Hollywood professionalism. Academy voters like that sheen, and tend to gravitate toward polished movies that use a mainstream Hollywood aesthetic to tell “important” stories. Yes, sometimes aesthetically unique films will be nominated for Best Picture (Mad Max: Fury Road, anyone?), but even something like 12 Years a Slave places an aesthetic distance between itself and the audience.
Moonlight, perhaps mercifully, doesn’t have that guile. Director Barry Jenkins places his cameras up close to the actors in deliberately bland, impoverished Florida communities, allowing them to look the way they look; there is no attempt to “dress up” the poverty as so many films have done. This is a film that takes place in the real world, and features characters who speak as actual humans do; that is: there is no deliberate patter, banter, or artificial poetry. All of the balletic beauty to spring from the characters comes from their souls, their emotions, and their experiences.
Moonlight is also significant in that it actually aggressively counters a deep element of culture that is usually vaunted as a matter of course. Moonlight questions the notions of masculinity in culture – specifically the masculinity of the black American male – and argues that traditional masculine roles are a subtle form of cultural tyranny. Chiron, the main character of the film, is a gay black boy who grows into a gay black man, and is never given the vocabulary to communicate what that is, and is never in a situation where he is allowed to explore what that means to him. He is forced – by poverty, by drugs, and by the social mores around him – to behave a certain way. When Chiron makes a single quiet admission at the film’s conclusion, despite its quietude, it crashes like a waterfall.
Films like Moonlight come to art houses and indie theaters commonly, and critics are constantly digging up films that are presented with a realistic style, deal with impoverished or marginalized people, and speak with a unique voice to a universal heart. Heck, American Honey was released just this last year as well. But it seems like this is the first time one of these gems has managed to cut through the self-congratulation and Hollywood sheen and take home the Academy’s top honor. This is not just significant, but hopeful.
Top Image: A24
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.