The circumstances of Moonlight’s victory at the Oscars, with La La Land incorrectly announced as the winner first, were both utterly bizarre and weirdly appropriate. If there’s never been high drama quite like this at the Academy Awards before, there’s never been a Best Picture winner like Moonlight either. Small, poetic films like Barry Jenkins’s don’t win Oscars. They show at Sundance or Tribeca or Telluride, turn up on year-end critic lists and in pieces titled “10 films the Oscars ignored”.
Never mind winning, it’s a minor miracle that Moonlight was even nominated for Best Picture. Academy voters aren’t known for their adventurousness, and even when they do push more challenging works, there’s usually something to hold on to: a star in a supporting role, a famous director. Many of the actors in Moonlight were unknown before the film’s release, and Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali were, at best, minor stars. Few had heard of Jenkins or his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, either. The biggest player on the team was producer Dede Gardner, president of Plan B Entertainment, which co-produced along with A24 and Pastel Productions. With Moonlight, Gardner became the first female producer with two Best Picture Oscars (12 Years a Slave won in 2014).
There are other reasons why Moonlight’s triumph is a thoroughly unlikely one. Oscar-nominated films about black lives have usually revolved around slavery (Amistad, 12 Years a Slave), civil rights (Selma) or race relations (Driving Miss Daisy, The Help). Moonlight, in its broadest sense an exploration of gay black lives, may sound like an “issue film”, but the treatment is less stirring and more dreamy than you’d expect. There is very little dialogue. The granular, hypnotic visual style recalls the films of Wong Kar Wai, just as its intimate take on black lives in America points to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and its tri-part structure to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times. At the risk of making Moonlight sound forbidding or inaccessible (neither of which it is), this might just be the first time an art film has won Best Picture.
After the shock of Envelopegate had faded, I looked at the list of Best Picture winners to see if there was any precedent for awarding something so utterly outside the mainstream. There were a couple of long shots. The war film All Quiet on the Western Front, winner in 1931, had no big stars – Lew Ayres became known after its release—and a grittiness that was novel for its time (The Hurt Locker achieved something similar in 2010). Marty, winner in 1956, starred Ernest Borgnine, who normally played the heavy, and placed an uncommon emphasis on the ordinariness of its characters. Slumdog Millionaire, winner in 2009, had actors who were largely unfamiliar to Western audiences. Yet, there are reasons why each of these would have appealed to Academy voters. Moonlight obviously did too, but why this subtle, intimate film clicked with an institution that favours the flashy, the well-meaning and the prestigious isn’t immediately apparent.
What Moonlight’s victory has done—if only until next year—is change our conception about what can and what cannot win an Oscar. Passing over a (very worthy) crowd-pleaser in favour of an unconventional tone poem is a fascinating signal of intent from the Academy. It may end up awarding a stuffy British costume drama next year, but for the moment, there’s reason to be optimistic.