In 2006 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came under fire for a their best picture decision. The Oscar went to Crash, a film directed by Paul Haggis, which explores the intricacies of race and prejudice in everyday life in America. It was an excellent film, well acted by a star studded cast. But it was not considered to be the best movie of the year.
Conventional wisdom says that there are two awards any film needs to lock up to guarantee Best Picture. Those awards are Best Cinematography and Best Director. If a film can have the beautiful look and distinct view of a well operated camera along with the unique tone of a director's specific voice, it has the moxie needed to go the distance.
Crash was not nominated for Best Cinematography. In fact, Crash was only nominated for six awards. Three of them were specific nominations for Writer/Director/Producer Paul Haggis who had won an Oscar for writing the Million Dollar Baby which had won Best Picture the year before, suggesting that perhaps it was the man, not the movie, that voters were supporting.
The film with the most nominations of the year was Brokeback Mountain, which had eight. Included in those nominations were the much lauded nominations for cinematography, directing, as well as a Best Picture nomination. The conventional wisdom was that with those three nominations, the film that was much derided as "the gay cowboy movie" would come away as the night's big winner.
But it seemed that Hollywood was not ready to accept the themes in Brokeback Mountain. The film was a beautiful, touching, well crafted masterpiece. There was is no question about that. It earned Ang Lee the best director award. But awarding it the title of Best Picture was a bridge too far for the old, rich, white, out of touch members of the Academy.
Instead they turned to Crash. A movie set in LA. A film about people learning to understand people who were different than them. Even if they did not understand or like those people. A film that focused in on so many different sides of so many different characters that it said everybody is good in some ways at the end of the day. A film whose very plot allowed Oscar voters to justify their bigoted vote against Brokeback Mountain.
Then, again, last year the Academy failed to recognize tremendous film making when it centered around queer themes. This time the movie was Carol, which starred Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as a pair of lovers entangled in a secret affair while each tries to navigate their own place in a world with very little respect for women. Based on the novel The Price of Salt which came out in 1952, the movie is a tour de force. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and seemed destined to make a distinguished run towards Best Picture.
Unlike Brokeback though, Carol did not even receive a nomination for Best Picture. It did receive a few award nominations (writing, costume design, score) as well as acting nominations for the two leads and a cinematography nomination. But the film and all those involved walked around empty handed at the end of the award ceremony.
Many film critics saw it as a complete travesty that Carol had not even been nominated for Best Picture. In a powerful article for The AV Club, Nico Lang pointed out that "only two actors have ever won an award for playing an LGBT character who lives to see the end of the movie": Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, both of whom still play incredibly tortured characters. Lang specifically points out that
"The reason that Carol is unique and extraordinary is likewise the exact reason that the Academy didn't deem it Best Picture-worthy ... The Price Of Salt was a landmark work of LGBT fiction, not just because it was published in 1952 (a time many Americans were unaware lesbians even existed) but because it didn't punish its star-crossed lovers for their desires ... [the novel] leaves the door open for a happy ending ... What makes stories like the romance portrayed in Carol isn't the ecstasy of queer agony but that there were real women like Carol Aird and Therese Belivet."
Long contextualizes his point by showing that most films which feature LGBT characters and garner the Academy's attention feature those characters dying. Monster, The Hours, Philadelphia, Kiss Of The Spider, Boys Don't Cry, and Dallas Buyers Club all form a pattern of the Academy shining a spotlight on LGBT characters who die during the movie.
Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed points out that this pattern exists because of the biases of the Academy. The mostly old, white, straight, male population who gets to pick the Best Picture will not go out of their way to relate to a movie that doesn't seem to speak directly to them. Thus, as Willmore puts it in her article
"...many of the films that will be trotted out soon and taken more seriously do their own sanitizing of social issues and historical injustices, using characters as symbols rather than as people unto themselves, and mediating stories through the more 'relatable' perspectives of outsiders and allies."
Which brings us to this year's race for Best Picture. Much hay has already been made over a nine film race which has been all but boiled down to La La Land vs Moonlight. The two films stand out as the pinnacle of film making this year. But for very different reasons.
Much of La La Land's momentum seems to have built up around director Damien Chazelle's ability to play the political game of Hollywood. He earned a nomination for the 2014 film Whiplash, which was also nominated for best picture, but went home empty handed. The major stumbling point of that film seemed to be that the two main leads, played by Miles Teller and JK Simmons (in a performance that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), were completely unlikable.
In La La Land, Chazelle seems to have fixed the likability problem. The jazz obsessed hipster musician, which seems to be a fixture for Chazelle and may be more of a representation of self than anything else in his work, is no longer the main draw. While we were meant to sympathize with an unlikable Teller in Whiplash, we are given permission to criticize Ryan Gosling as the exact same character in La La Land.
Chazelle got burned by the Academy when his jazz-snob musician was a struggling hard worker who you wanted to like but couldn't. So he took that character and made him a jazz-snob musician who was a well off lay-about that you wanted to hate but couldn't help but enjoy. He learned from his mistakes and reverse engineered a movie that's all but sure to win this year.
Moonlight on the other hand, is a masterpiece that commits to its story. In a year of sad movies, it is not a happy one. But it also does not put it's main character, a gay black man growing up in Southern Florida, through the kinds of paces that previous gay characters have had to go through to earn their films recognition from the AMPAS.
And it could have. Moonlight could have been the movie that made us watch another gay man die. The movie that made us watch another black man die. The movie that showed us, once again, that the system is broken and that this world does not help certain people, no matter how badly they need it. But it didn't. Because, while it's hard to watch and at times completely heart breaking, Moonlight seems to be hopeful.
Moonlight is nominated for, among many other things, Best Adapted Screenplay. This is a nomination that has garnered some press because of the back story. The film is based on a play that Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote for Drama School entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
The title comes from a scene in which Juan, played by an astounding Mahershala Ali, tells Chiron that "at some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you". This is a theme that comes back around when Juan tells a young Chiron, who is gay, to never "let nobody call you no faggot".
This sense of definition of self is what defines the film. Moonlight is broken into three acts, each of which take place at a different point in the protagonist's life. The first act (i. Little) takes place when Chiron is a child. The second (ii. Chiron) shows him as a teenager who is beginning to understand is own sexuality. The final act (iii. Black) is when he has become a grown man and is finally coming to grips with the complicated human being that he is.
This final act is the most compelling to watch for many reasons. While the second act has received most of the critical fanfare, and is the most emotional, the third does the most work to invert Hollywood tropes. While La La Land has received all this year's praise for reappropriating classic Hollywood onto a modern Los Angeles, the third act of Moonlight forces us to confront our own prejudices.
We see Chiron, now called Black (a nickname given to him by his childhood friend turned teenage love interest Kevin) as a physically imposing ex-con drug dealer in Georgia. His physical demeanor, way of doing business, and clothing are all reminiscent of so many stereotypes of black men we have seen in other movies. But we have watched this boy grow up into a man. We know the struggles he as been through in his life. There is more life behind his grill and gold chain than we have seen in this character before. We can see Little in the softness in his eyes.
The film ends with Chiron going to visit Kevin, who he has been estranged from for many years because of events which take place in the second act. The two begin as awkwardly as any two people would after a long separation but they slowly fall back into place with each other. As they drive from the diner where Kevin works back to his home, they being to open up to each other. When they get back to Kevin's house, we see them comfortable with each other again. We see the beginning of what might be a future together.
And, even if it is not, we see Chiron defining himself the way Juan taught him to in the first act. He is not this one-dimensional black "thug" character that we have seen in other movies. That level of shallow representation is not a real person. He is a man with a past. A man with a life. A man who accepts who he is. And he will continue to be that person into his future. And as we see him become comfortable with Kevin we remember that it is important that Chiron gets to define himself when we see a younger him, Little, in the moonlight, on that beach where Juan taught him to swim. And he doesn't look black. He looks blue.
At it's heart, Moonlight is a film about hope. It is a movie that tells the story of a man who our society refuses to help right now. Chiron is a poor, gay, black man. He is the ultimate outsider in 21st century America. But he defines himself. He refuses to accept other people's labels or hatred. And that gives him hope.
Unfortunately, the Academy will not find that worthy of an award. The movie is not about their lives and, so, they will not find it interesting. There is some small hope because of the number of new, younger Academy members brought in this year. But that hope seems slim. Chiron's life is full of hope which he has created for himself.
And because he is a real person, and not a prop used to explain a struggle to the Academy, it is unlikely the film will win. Not when it is against something like La La Land which has been built as the ultimate empathy machine for Oscar voters. "Yes" they will say in unison "that gay black man's life does seem very hard. It did seem like a good story to tell. But I didn't understand why I should care. I am a dreamer. And the dreamers who dream are the best kind of dreamers to be!" and they will check the box for La La Land. Just like they checked the box for Argo, or The Artist, or any other film that told the story of how important Hollywood is.
So, because of the bias that denied Brokeback Mountain a Best Picture Oscar. Because of the bias that stopped Carol from even getting nominated. And because of the bias that continues to this day, Moonlight will most likely not win the Oscar for best picture. But, because it is a beautiful film that shows the possibility of hope even in the face of complete opposition, it deserves to. It is this year's best picture.