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The Oscars Can Still Matter

On the joy — and possibility — of a ‘Moonlight’ victory

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I feel like I won Best Picture.

I didn’t, of course: Barry Jenkins’s movie Moonlight did — somehow, shockingly, despite what had been considered long odds, and despite an envelope mishap for the ages. Sunday night was supposed to belong to Damien Chazelle’s beloved, profitable contemporary musical, La La Land, with its record 14 nominations. And actually, it sort of did. La La Land still won Best Actress (Emma Stone) and Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Score, and Best Original Song (“City of Stars”), despite losing a few assumed categories to films like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. It won six awards total, the most of the night — and three more than Moonlight.

I had nothing to do with Moonlight’s writerly lyricism or its heat and color-saturated vision of coming of age in Liberty City, Miami. I didn’t breathe life and experience into its performances or make them cohere with razor-sharp specificity in the editing room. But this is the joy of inclusion: You feel like it’s yours. The long road, from falling in love with Moonlight at the New York Film Festival last fall to looking on Sunday as it won the movie industry’s highest honor, has made me feel like I’m a part of something. Movie history, yes, but something larger.

It’s not just a matter of identity — though so what if it were? I happen to be a gay black dude, and Moonlight happens to be about someone like me. But an equally important factor is that I tend to think the Oscars are low-key trash, and I usually end the ceremony a little bit disappointed for the movies I love. You don’t hope movies will win because they need the recognition. You hope they’ll win because you want that for them, because you understand firsthand the particular joy of being recognized by one’s peers, and because you want your own taste to align with what the industry deems worthy of its highest honors.

I, of course, love being entertained at the movies. And I love movies that do so in the classical Hollywood fashion, with discernible arcs and straightforward, pleasurable storytelling, as much as the next person. But most of all, I like movies that challenge us: with their ideas and their substance, and their images, and the consequences of their makers’ visions. Those latter movies aren’t the kinds that win Best Picture; Moonlight is the first to do so in a number of years. Against my finer instincts, I feel vindicated.

Whether that sense of validation amounts to anything substantive or real is the question from here on. In January, New Yorker critic Richard Brody declared: “The only good thing about this year’s political events is that, as far as the Oscars go, nobody with a brain, a heart, or some courage actually gives a shit.” It isn’t the movies that don’t matter, Brody clarifies: It’s that, in the midst of a world on the seeming brink of collapse, the Oscars themselves don’t matter. On Twitter, action director (and previous Oscar nominee for live-action short) Lexi Alexander, reflecting the same sentiment, wrote: “Oscars tonight! Folks who made Islamophobic movies & never hire women, Arabs, Muslims will make great anti-Trump/anti-xenophobia speeches.”

For much of this awards season, which has neatly coalesced with a wildly fraught new political era, it’s been difficult to justify caring about an award that, so far as most winners are concerned, will amount to a bathroom or desk ornament and a really great story should the winner go bankrupt and get caught trying to sell it on eBay. All season, friends would remind me that the Oscars are a pageantry that any politically minded adult has no time to care about right now — arguing, even, that they should be canceled. And I, knowing it would potentially be a year for black artists, kept thinking, “Couldn’t you guys have pulled this ‘Cancel the Oscars’ shit during a whiter year? I want to hear Viola.”

The Oscars are weird in that way. They matter and they don’t — they’re more self-important than important. Watching clips of the nominees for best documentary feature or short flash by, you’d think the Oscars were all politics and history, full of insight about and concern for Syria, black lives, and victims of atrocity everywhere. And then someone reminds you that Khaled Khatib, Syrian cinematographer of the Oscar-nominated documentary short The White Helmets, was barred from traveling to the U.S. to attend the ceremony, and that Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of The Salesman (which won Best Foreign Film) refused to attend the ceremony on similar grounds.

Do the Oscars matter? Never more, or less, than when a president prevents your attendance. The great disappointment of the night was that after months of speculation over whether the ceremony would “get political” (did anyone ever figure out what that meant?), it seemed the overt grandstanding that has defined every other awards show to date left the attendees nowhere to go but toward fluff. Or maybe toward their ballots. Someone somewhere will inevitably speculate that Moonlight won for exactly this reason, that it’s really a corrective to the political revelations of the last year. The Oscars don’t matter, the theory goes, but they could — if Oscar voters back the right movies. Blacker and browner movies, more movies by women, more movies by and about the oppressed.

I love that theory. And tonight, if only for a night, I’m willing to buy it. Awards give you a chance to root for people, rather than merely their products. You get to see the faces, and hear of the lives, of all those creators who labored on the Hollywood productions we love. But if that’s the case — if it’s stories and people and inclusion that matter — the Oscars are only as good or important as the stories still not told, and only as inclusive as the legions of people still not there. It isn’t a question of whether the honors bestowed by the academy already, as of today, matter. It’s a question of whether the academy knows how much they eventually could.

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