What 'Moonlight's Best Picture Win Really Means
Like many things in this country recently, this year's winner for the Academy Award for Best Picture faced a major divide in public sentiment. Plenty of people loved La La Land, and plenty were unimpressed, only to become more and more disappointed as the film continued to rack up awards this season — particularly because it was often facing off against Moonlight, a film that couldn't be more different. And the longstanding face-off between the two films came to an incredibly odd and shocking ending when La La Land was announced to have won the night's top honor only for it to moments later be revealed that Moonlight actually won Best Picture. But regardless of how the award ended up being named (and, man, was that a wild ride), it's undeniable that a win for a film like Moonlight is unprecedented and groundbreaking, and could make a substantial impact on the types of films that are funded and greenlit in the future.
A film like Moonlight has never before won Best Picture. If you've seen it, you know that the story is not one that is told often. The film follows a young gay black man, Chiron, throughout his life as he struggles to find self-acceptance, and acceptance in the world around him. It talks about crack addiction, drug dealing, and teenage boys exploring their sexuality. It shows brutal schoolyard fights, playful schoolyard games, and plates of food that made this viewer nostalgic. It's hard enough to find coming of age stories about people of color or about gay characters, so the fact that this movie stars a character who is both sets it apart on its own.
The format and direction of the film is unique, too. It is divided into three segments that show three different parts of Chiron's life, and features three different actors playing both Chiron and his friend Kevin at different ages. It also includes some unexpectedly surreal moments, like the scenes showing Chiron's mother, Paula, silently screaming with neon lights behind her, like a monster and a dream at the same time. The film is a true indie — it was shot in 25 days for less than $5 million. And, perhaps most telling of all when it comes to the quality of this film, Moonlight has a 98 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Then there's the people who made this film come to life. Moonlight has an entirely non-white cast, a black director/screenwriter in Barry Jenkins, the first black woman nominated for editing, Joi McMillan, and it was adapted from a play by a black gay writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney. In fact, Moonlight helped make Oscars history throughout the night, as it was the first Oscars where more than three black people took home awards.
Jenkins spoke to Moonlight's proud and undeniable blackness in an interview with Complex when he commented on starting the movie with Boris Gardiner's "Every N*gger Is a Star":
"...I just decided I wanted to open the movie this way because it planted a flag that this was a very black film from a very black perspective, and I just couldn't think of another song that stated that more clearly than that track."
Often, when there are films that are deemed worthy of an Oscar nomination that star multiple black cast members, they are historical dramas, like the 2014 winner 12 Years A Slave or Selma, which was widely thought to be snubbed. This isn't to say that Moonlight should have been given extra points for not featuring white people in its cast, but the impact of a film like this winning Best Picture provides solid, easy-to-point-to evidence that films directed by and starring people of color are both loved by viewers and worthy of film's top honor.
In fact, the other films led by people of color in this year's race led to that conversation before the Oscars even aired, particularly Hidden Figures. Taking in over $150 million domestically, the movie, which shows three black women playing three real black women from history, has proven that stories about diversity and representation get attention, and that moviegoers are more than willing to pay for them. I personally have heard multiple people say that they actively wanted to pay to see Hidden Figures purely to support the movie.
Star Octavia Spencer shared similar thoughts in an interview with Deadline:
"I’ve got to tell you, if I look down a list of characters on a film, and it doesn’t have gay, African-American or Latin characters, I’m probably not going to spend my money on the ticket. I’m going to be real honest with you. I see enough of the homogeneity, and I don’t need to support it with my dollar. And when we stop supporting things with our dollars that don’t represent all of us, then you’ll see an explosion of diversity."
Which is to say that Moonlight's win could definitely have an impact when it comes to the future of films like these, because it makes the point so strongly that, when quality diverse stories are told, they can really speaker to viewers, the Academy, and more.
Jenkins himself has pointed out that Moonlight and the other films nominated were not reactions to #OscarsSoWhite, but rather just the ongoing effort of filmmakers of color to tell the stories they want to tell. As he told Complex,
"I'm like, it took three and a half years to make my movie. Whatever this is a response to, it was something that we felt was present on the ground, and all these filmmakers who felt like their images weren't being served took it upon themselves to fill that void. When we speak of these things only as a reaction to what happened nine months ago, we rob the creators and we rob the funders and the supporters of the actual work all those years ago who decided this sh*t must stop."
Moonlight's win doesn't "fix" the Oscars diversity issue, but it could influence what happens in the future in the film industry outside of award shows, which is really more important. How are films produced? Money. When it comes to what we as viewers get to see, the financial side of things plays a huge role. If a film does well in the box office, there's a better chance of us seeing similar films in the future. (Just think of all the action movie sequels that are made.) Moonlight hasn't made much money compared to some of the other Best Picture nominees (as of publication it's sitting at around $22 million), but movies that are nominated do get a boost in the box office, and winning Best Picture could lead to more financial success for the film.
Along with money, studios do value award wins. A film about a gay black man wins Best Picture, and it's encouragement for studios to tell more diverse stories because it's proof that they resonate. In Hollywood, money speaks and awards speak. Moonlight being nominated was a positive thing; Moonlight winning will hopefully light some fires under some asses when it comes to funding films like these.
So what happens now? Well, judging by the words of Jenkins and Spencer and many more, people keep making films that matter and keep telling their stories and hopefully they get put out there. And maybe, just maybe, they'll follow in Moonlight's trailblazing footsteps with more Best Picture wins.