Warren Beatty is an icon of American film, the lesser half of Annette Benning, star of many a cinematic classic and, reportedly, thousands and thousands of sexual escapades. And yet it Beatty, while presenting the award for Best Picture alongside the Bonnie to his Clyde, Faye Dunaway, could not stop Dunaway from mistakenly giving out the award to La La Land.
— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) February 27, 2017
It was only after the La La Land team’s acceptance speech was well underway that Beatty interjected, Kanye-style, to explain that, whoops! There’d been a misunderstanding.
In fact, the winner of the most coveted award of the night — one that had been in heated contention since the nominees were announced, coming as they did on the heels of two Academy Awards ceremonies that utterly failed to celebrate or even acknowledge the contributions of people of color to the film industry — had been won not by La La Land, an escapist musical romance about two wide-eyed dreamers, but by Moonlight, the emotionally raw coming-of-age story about a gay, black boy discovering his identity.
It’s the kind of bonkers, what WHAT?!? moment that renders all the jokes cracked and speeches delivered during the three and a half hours previous barely worth considering or repeating (although don’t fret, Viola Davis fans and Casey Affleck detractors; we’ll get there a little further down). It was stunning in the way live television often promises to be and rarely, actually is: A delightful shock to the system. For so many, it called to mind — or, more accurately, to heart — that election night feeling of can this really be happening? But instead of horror dawning, it was something else: Unlikely elation, if marred slightly by the empathy for the La La Land would-be winners who thought they’d clinched the big one.
Host Jimmy Kimmel executed his duties just fine, with sharper jokes than some may have expected — “I want to say thank you to President Trump. Remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist?” — though perhaps ever since that other Jimmy made the fateful decision to toy with Donald’s hair, all the other gents of late night have realized it’s savvier to take aim at Trump than to feign neutrality.
The night was littered with digs at POTUS, from his disdain for any news organization with the word “times” in it to his assessment of the “overrated” nominee Meryl Streep who, as Kimmel put it, “has phoned it in for more than 50 films over the course of her lackluster career.” (Before he was sworn in, Trump used to relish live-tweeting these ceremonies; this year, he opted out, despite encouragement, via tweet, from Kimmel himself.) More speeches than not at least nodded at the current political climate; even presenters made references to the walls they don’t believe we should build and the borders they hope art can help us transcend.
There is the argument to be made that, stuck as we are in such a fraught political moment — not just at the White House but in Hollywood as well, with this being the first year after two back-to-back years of #OscarsSoWhite that talent of color had a real shot at the podium — all of these movies have taken on a significance so outsize as to be irrational or unfair. Everything feels heightened. (How La La Land of us!) It’s all weighted with meaning, maybe unnecessarily so.
For instance: Is it racist to be disappointed for La La Land, a movie in which a white guy purports to explain jazz to a disinterested white girl, even though the champion was Moonlight, a film directed by Barry Jenkins and co-written by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, adapted from McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue? What does it mean that Mel Gibson, a noted anti-Semite who was investigated for domestic violence, is back in the good graces of Hollywood? That Casey Affleck, a man accused by two women who worked under him of sexual harassment, can take home the trophy for Best Actor?
On the flip side, the successes are loaded with so much hope and power, perhaps more than they can hold: Mahershala Ali, surprising no one with his much-deserved win for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in Moonlight, became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar; Viola Davis won her first Oscar with Best Supporting Actress for Fences and gave a passionate speech.
Iranian filmmaker Ashgar Farhadi, who boycotted the Oscars in protest of President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, won Best Foreign Language film for The Salesman. He sent Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian to go into space, to read a statement on his behalf. It read, in part:
I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.
Dividing the world into the “us” and “our enemies” categories creates fears. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression.
Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.
The White Helmets, a Netflix documentary about the Syrian White Helmets, civilians who train to volunteer as rescue workers in Syria, won Best Documentary Short. The group has saved tens of thousands of lives.
The leader of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated group, Raed Saleh, stayed behind in Syria. Producer Joanna Natasegara and director Orlando von Einsiedel read a statement from Saleh from the stage:
Our organization is guide by a verse from the Koran ‘to save one life is to save all of humanity’. We have saved more than 82 thousand civilian lives. I invite anyone here who hears me to work on the side of life, to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and around the world.
Upon winning Best Adapted Screenplay for Moonlight, Jenkins and McCraney both spoke about representation, with Jenkins addressing “all you people out there who feel there is no mirror for you, that you feel your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back, and for the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.”
McCraney followed up by saying, “This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves, we are trying to show you, you and us, so thank you, thank you, this is for you.”
Even the commercials felt loaded with progressive intent. Hot on the heels of the Washington Post debuting a new goth motto for these doom-filled days, the New York Times aired an ad about the importance of truth — and, of course, the importance of accessing said truth through a New York Times subscription:
The New York Times has a new marketing campaign: "The truth is more important now than ever." pic.twitter.com/jWJTeB0pdW
— The New York Times (@nytimes) February 27, 2017
But it feels like it would be careless to get either too crushed by the predictable refusal to do more than shrug when white men commit (or allegedly commit) hateful, prejudicial, violent acts, or to feel too uplifted by the multitude of speeches imploring audiences to stay tolerant, vigilant, informed, and kind, to be too lured in by the reassuring sight of blue ACLU ribbons and gold Planned Parenthood pins on so many of this year’s nominees.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Warren Beatty insisted, after the Moonlight cast and crew flooded the stage, gorgeous shock on all of their faces. And it’s true: He wasn’t trying to be funny. He wasn’t trying to do anything. The symbolism of Moonlight snagging the Best Picture award away from La La Land — an inversion and echo of Adele’s upset of Beyoncé at the Grammys just two weeks ago — is an accident.
It doesn’t mean that the Oscars, not so white in this particular year, will never be so white again. The presence of Katherine Johnson, the NASA computer whose astonishing, boundary-breaking career served as the inspiration for Hidden Figures, does not magically repair the underrepresentation of women in the behind-the-scenes roles in film and, by extension, at the Academy Awards. This year’s Oscars were not a reaction to last year’s Oscars; this year’s nominated films were in the works well before 2016’s telecast. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is improving; through concerted efforts led by President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a more inclusive, active group is voting in these awards. But, like any body that is a derivative of our larger culture, the Academy is still a deeply flawed one, with all the typical prejudices and blindspots. And anyway, Suicide Squad won an Oscar last night, too.
But still: It was great, wasn’t it? That Moonlight victory. Spectacular, even. Like hope realized. It’s nice to know that feeling is still out there. That we can still have it. Even just for a night.