Monday, February 27, 2017

Why "Moonlight" Winning Best Picture is a Big Deal

By all accounts, the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony was going according to plan. Over the course of the evening through 24 categories, the nominees who had won almost every preliminary got up and gave acceptance speeches. There was nothing new. There rarely is when it comes to the Oscars. Viola Davis won. Emma Stone won It was a predictable even. That is, until the last category was announced. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced La La Land, which was predicted to sweep the entire ceremony. Moments later, it was revealed that there was a mistake and that Moonlight actually won. While this is a moment that will be analyzed for decades to come, it should also be seen as a ceremonious moment that hopefully marks a change in the Academy Awards. Hopefully, this is the moment where things become more inclusive.

Over the past two years, social media has had fun with nitpicking the Academy's lack of diversity. The phrase "Oscars So White" took on a life of its own. President Cheryl Boone Isaacs even made a promise to improve racial diversity in the Academy voters by 2020. If this year's nominees are any indicator, she may very well meet her goal. Still, it is interesting to look at director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight as a turning point towards this goal as well as meeting something that has largely been absent. Even if there have been a diverse group of winners in the past, this was one of the first years where that diversity was represented in a positive light.

Moonlight had the double whammy of being a black gay movie. It is a story that definitely hasn't been represented at the Oscars. There's no momentous shift in the story. Instead, it's just about a man going through life while trying to understand his identity. It's a movie that feels like a culmination of the Barack Obama era's progressiveness, and especially so when considering that we never see protagonist Chiron as a victim, but more of a character with a rich tapestry of character. This isn't a story meant to pity blacks or gays, but notice that they have lives not unlike the many straight white protagonists who have been up on the acceptance stage for several, several decades now.

So why is it important that a black gay movie won? It has to do with The Academy's own history. While there are exceptions, there are a few rules that have to be met for blacks and gays to win Oscars (more for the latter): they have to either be the villain, or suffer in some form of martyrdom. While the black community thankfully hasn't suffered the issue as fully (see: Sidney Poitier's In the Heat of the Night, or Morgan Freeman's Million Dollar Baby), it has painted a sadistic and counterproductive issue to the most prestigious awards' image. While maybe not from a place of racism, there was usually a submissiveness where blacks and gays had to have a powerful, if predictable, moral to their story. Meanwhile, Birdman could win Best Picture simply by portraying a self-entitled narcissist who just so happens to be white.

While Moonlight's achievements may be seen more directly involved with the black community (it is the first all-black cast movie to win Best Picture), it should be seen more as a triumphant narrative shift for the LGBT community, who have had a lousier time when it comes to recognition. There's the conflict with cisgender actors winning Oscars for "bravely" playing gay characters. Last year's Best Original Song winner Sam Smith went so far as to suggest that he was the first openly gay Oscar winner (a fact quickly debunked by Dustin Lance Black). While there's still progress to be made in getting LGBT nominees better represented, hopefully Moonlight will change what the pattern has been for too long.

Every year has some great LGBT cinema. The only issue is that it would be hard to tell if your own point of reference was Best Picture. Last year's highly acclaimed Carol failed to earn a Best Picture nomination, which was seen as problematic to some (though may have had to do with Harvey Weinstein's poor release planning). However, it was even more problematic when the rest of the patterns added insult to injury. Carol is a positive lesbian love story that ends with Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett smiling at each other. Both were nominated, but despite the acclaim, they were overshadowed by The Danish Girl: a film about the first person to participate in gender reassignment surgery. The story ends with Eddie Redmayne dying during surgery after portraying the process in a pandering method that painted co-star Alicia Vikander in a manipulative light. Vikander's enabler performance would go on to win Best Supporting Actress. While not an LGBT character, her support of Redmayne's transition was problematic and at times insulting. Comparatively, this year's Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) manages to be more embracing of young Chiron's conflicting feelings of homosexuality; all of which he did without condescending to an entire group of people.

To go even further back into Oscar history is to see even spottier records. If a gay person doesn't die at the end (referred to as the Celluloid Closet), they suffer in a significant way. While there have been nominees of less conflicting LGBT roles, the ones who win are more often than not in these two camps (there is a third one like The Imitation Game where the gay themes are sterilized and almost removed from character in any interesting manner). This is present in Best Supporting Actor winner Jared Leto's performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Along with Best Actor winner co-star Matthew McConaughey, it was a problematic film that painted Leto's transgender character as a martyr who is condescended to by McConaughey and almost serves little function beyond emotional manipulation. The same could be said for Best Actor winners Sean Penn (Milk) or  Tom Hanks (Philadelphia). While these were great performances, the one lingering reality is that the only way to win as a gay character was to be a tragic figure, of which cannot be said about all straight white characters.

Chris Cooper in American Beauty
The issue is that Best Picture isn't a much friendlier place. With exception to Midnight Cowboy (which won in 1969), gay characters have pretty much been relegated to villain roles - intentionally or not. This was especially true in the 1990's, where Braveheart infamously featured a gay character being comically abused. Likewise, Silence of the Lambs was a film in which the villain was a gay serial killer whose only defense was that he was misunderstood and a bit crazy as a result of being an outcast. On the other end of the decade is American Beauty, in which a homophobic father (Chris Cooper) murders the protagonist (Kevin Spacey) for reasons related to his repressed homosexuality. If one was to judge the decade by these three Best Picture winners, it would be that gays were sadistic murderers who deserved to be laughed, if not feared.

This would be fine if there was a positive representation of gay culture regularly represented in Best Picture. This isn't the case. Most Best Picture winners since have largely ignored movies with gay supporting cast members, let alone nominate films with positive portrayals. The same could be said for black movies, of which previously featured 12 Years a Slave and Best Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong'o in a role full of suffering. Even then, blacks have had a better run of luck, as films like Selma and Hidden Figures at least see their nominated work feature strong and independent characters. 

Still, the contradicting issue is that the Oscars have tried to make an argument for inclusion. While the argument could be made that they have been doing that for decades, it wasn't until Moonlight that this sentiment felt true. It was a film that didn't have martyrs in the Celluloid Closet. It has people living their own complex lives. It is a film that represents what the future of cinema should look like - and frankly should've won more Oscars. This is the first Best Picture winner in almost 50 years to have a positive depiction of gay characters (even then, it featured a dead gay character). If nothing else, it makes the argument that the Oscars really are wanting to represent everyone. One can only hope that this much is true and that Moonlight is what the Oscars needed to regain relevance and recognize the shift in how society is represented in film. Here's hoping that next year's race is going to be very interesting.

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