I was sitting on my bed, nursing my three-year-old son, as I streamed the Oscar broadcast on my laptop. I sighed with resignation when Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land had won Best Picture. I was a touch disappointed, but I wasn't surprised. But when it was revealed moments later that Moonlight had actually won, I turned to the computer in shock.
As director Barry Jenkins began to make his acceptance speech, my eyes unexpectedly welled with tears. I was in absolute shock. It felt like the 2008 election all over again. As a former actor and a black woman, it was completely validating to see all of those black people get up on stage to receive the most important award of their lives. But the win also held a less exciting undertone for me.
There is no doubt that Moonlight’s win at the Oscars was monumental. It is the first film with an all-black cast, director and screenwriter — in addition to the first film with an LGBT main character — to win Best Picture. One of the film’s stars, Mahershala Ali, was the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. Moonlight offers a more cinematic examination of its themes than many other films with similar subject matters — as The Verge's Tasha Robinson noted, one of the "remarkable strengths [of the film] is how completely it avoids preaching, after-school messaging, or pat cinematic answers."
But in a year where Hidden Figures and Fences, two other films with a major focus on black people, were also contenders and nominees, a part of me wonders if Moonlight's win really upended the #OscarsSoWhite values that typically steer the Academy's Best Picture choices. Because if you look back into the history of black work and the Oscars, there is a small thread woven through many of the wins: they engage with stereotypes of what white America thinks of the black American experience.
At the heart of Moonlight is Chiron, a young black man who grows up around the drug world. His childhood confidante, Juan, is a drug dealer, while his mother, Paula, becomes addicted to crack. As an adult, Chiron becomes a drug dealer himself. Though co-screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the original play on which the film is based) and screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins mentioned in their joint acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay that the film featured many themes and experiences from their own lives, to me, the film still helps perpetuate the rhetoric that a lifestyle tied to drugs is the norm for black people — harkening back to the crack epidemic and furthering the current idea that we are destroying our own community (you can't go into a comment section on any article related to black issues without a white person arguing the myth of "black on black crime").
This belief isn't just drawn from knowledge about previous Best Picture nominees like Precious — a film which was undoubtedly well directed, critically acclaimed, and provided nuanced insight into the life of the impoverished, but also couldn’t have been more stereotypical if it tried. It's informed by my experiences as a former actor.
I spent most of my life training to act. I spent years in arts schools, developing my skills, and attended Emerson College, a well-known school in the industry — but one where black students were grossly in the minority. During my time there, only one play produced at the school was focused on people of color, directed by the only black acting teacher. As I neared graduation and got one step closer to pursuing acting professionally, I sought out the advice of a Los Angeles casting director who had come to talk to acting students about head shots. He was a man of color, as well. His biggest piece of advice for my head shots? “Make sure you have one or two where you look ghetto.”
I was dumbstruck. I didn’t even know how one could portray that in a picture, but I was really more confused by what that was supposed to say about my race and how I would be seen by casting directors as I entered the entertainment industry. Are all black actors automatically seen as only able to play “ghetto,” whatever that meant? Was he trying to tell me to prepare to only be relegated to playing a prostitute or drug addict because of the color of my skin? What kind of message does that send to a viewing audience? While I never directly experienced these sort of roles, I did notice that it was hard to get into the room or get past the initial audition as a woman of color, especially in productions where the other characters were often played by white actors. I think that casting director's comments definitely discouraged me from pursuing film and television acting; then, my experiences in theatre acting just led me to give it up altogether.
That’s why I was so excited to see the traction that Hidden Figures and Fences have gotten. These films don't engage stereotypes; they aren't about black women who were on welfare, slaves or maids. Troy and Rose Maxson of Fences were blue collar, while the women in Hidden Figures were mathematicians. These people battled racism with dignity and the hope for better lives and a new America. When these films were nominated for Best Picture, I suspected that the odds of either winning were slim because they didn’t perpetuate the stereotype, but rather railed against it. I thought Fences had a stronger chance of winning solely because of Denzel Washington, whose powerful performance in front of and behind the camera gave the film an undeniable depth and gravity. Meanwhile, Taraji P. Henson's dynamic performance in Hidden Figures wasn't even nominated, which is probably one of the most shocking snubs of the season. These films began to shift the narrative of what to expect from a black film; we can look for something more powerful, more all encompassing, more uplifting.
In post-Obama America, when the voices of angry white people have not only become a part of the new normal but seem to be expressed in policy coming out of the Oval Office, we need to support the strong black stories that have managed to persevere in the face of discrimination. Think about how many more Katherine Johnsons are out there, dying for their stories to be told. How many Mildred Lovings will fight to change the world but have their story languish on the sidelines of history? When will the script be flipped? How can we begin to move past the expectations white people have for black people when we are constantly awarded for being depicted exactly as they expect? Moonlight's win shifted the tides by showing that black lives on film do matter — but only when those lives fulfill expectations.