This year’s Oscar ceremony made history – but it’s not for the reason you’d think if you’re reading the headlines that followed it.
When La La Land was mistakenly declared to be the best movie winner, an unprecedented gaffe which threw the A-list crowd and viewers into a tizzy, it didn’t just spawn hilarious memes and fond remembrances of a past Australia’s Next Top Model finale (aka the moment Sarah Murdoch would rather forget).
Instead, it completely undermined a moment which should have gone down as one of the most significant in Oscar history.
And no, it’s not that the wrong envelope was handed out, despite the black ops style secrecy that goes into the lead up to the awards.
It’s the fact that Moonlight – a film which had all the odds stacked against it – deservedly took out the ultimate honour on Hollywood’s night of nights.
The first film with all African-American cast to win a best picture Oscar, it tackles territory rarely seen, if ever, on our screens. And it does so beautifully and in a way that critics universally have applauded.
For those who haven’t seen the movie (and trust me, you should do so), Moonlight is the coming-of-age story of Chiron (played in three stages of his life by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes in chronological order). Bullied as a child, neglected by his drug addict mother and with her dealer his only father figure, Chiron is confronted when he finds himself falling for his childhood friend Kevin in adolescence. This leads to a shocking moment of violence which sees him incarcerating and falling into a life of drug crime himself.
It’s shocking, it’s sad, it’s raw. And it’s ground breaking storytelling given that stories of homosexual black men are rarely, if ever, explored on screen. In fact, until Moonlight, most gay stories told in film have been told through a white man’s eyes.
Not only that, but Moonlight shines a light on the shocking fact there are a huge, and unrivalled, number of black men estimated to disappear from society through early death and incarceration.
And this film did all of that on the smallest budget of any movie celebrated at the awards. An independent release, Moonlight was made for a mere US$1.5 million dollars. Compare that with the lavish budgets enjoyed by fellow nominees such as La La Land (US$30 million), Arrival (US $45 million) or Hacksaw Ridge ($40 million) and you can see what it was about against.
Remember when Marissa Tomei won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in comedy My Cousin Vinnie? Remember the “they read out the wrong name” outcry that followed? That was way back in 1992 and to this day Tomei is the butt of jokes about the validity of her win. It’s pretty much the first thing you find when you Google her. And it’s a rub she has admitted still runs deep.
And now the same “wrong name” lasting memory looks set to afflict Moonlight, despite its record-breaking achievement in a time when the cry to celebrate inclusiveness and racial diversity is louder than ever.
— Variety (@Variety) February 27, 2017
It’s more likely that instead of people surging to see the low-budget tale as a result of the gaffe, they’re going to be calling foul on what is already starting to be called by some an “undeserving” win.
Worse yet, it also gives shallow substance to those claim it was the well-publicised drive for a more diverse Oscar list following 2016’s “white wash” which saw Moonlight take home the big prize in the first place.
It’s a tragic outcome on many levels, not least for those people who should be riotously celebrating most in the days after that Oscar first.
For Mahershala Ali – who also made history himself that night by becoming the first Muslim man to claim an acting award at the Oscars thanks to his role as drug lord Juan – it has robbed him of the joy the occasion deserved.
“When I saw security people coming onstage and their moment was being disrupted in some way, I got really worried and then when they said, ‘Moonlight, you guys have won,’ it just threw me, more than a bit,” a formerly jubilant Mahershala Ali told reporters in the aftermath of the bitter-sweet victory.
“I didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody. It’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that.”
It’s also hard, no doubt, to feel joy in having been part of a ground-breaking project which now looks set to become a Trivial Pursuit question side-note in the awards shows’ history.