Don’t let the Oscars’ mix-up ruin legacy of ‘Moonlight’

SHARE Don’t let the Oscars’ mix-up ruin legacy of ‘Moonlight’

Alex Hibbert (foreground) and Mahershala Ali in a scene from the film, “Moonlight.” (David Bornfriend/A24 via AP)

No one saw that coming.

Not even the most adventurous of Oscar pundits could have predicted presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway would walk onstage with the wrong envelope and accidentally name “La La Land” best picture, instead of actual winner “Moonlight.”

What followed was chaotic. A crew member rushed onstage to correct the error, but not before “La La Land’s” producers had begun thanking people. One of them, Jordan Horowitz, took to the mike to announce the mistake. “Sorry, guys, hold on. There’s a mistake. ‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture. This is not a joke.” Beatty tried to explain what happened. Academy Awards host Jimmy Kimmel jokingly referenced Steve Harvey, who famously announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe pageant in 2015. Eventually, “Moonlight’s” stunned cast and crew made their way to the stage to deliver abbreviated speeches.

It was historic, it was shocking and it was great television. But what it was not was a real celebration of the achievement of “Moonlight”. Even the filmmakers couldn’t revel in their big moment.

“It’s hard to feel joy in a moment like that, in front of (the La La Land cast and crew),” star Mahershala Ali, who won best supporting actor for his role as a drug dealer and unlikely father figure in the film, told reporters backstage.

“The last 20 minutes of my life have been insane,” said director and writer Barry Jenkins. “I was speechless when the result was altered.”

Producer Adele Romanski (center) writer/director Barry Jenkins, producer Jeremy Kleiner and cast/crew members accept Best Picture for ‘Moonlight’ onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Holl

Producer Adele Romanski (center) writer/director Barry Jenkins, producer Jeremy Kleiner and cast/crew members accept Best Picture for ‘Moonlight’ onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The hubbub of such a monumental mistake on live television might make it easy to forget the things about “Moonlight” that helped catapult it to Hollywood’s highest honor in the first place. But that would be a huge disservice to the film.

“You know, one of the things that I hope doesn’t get overshadowed is this was a $1.5 million indie film about a black, gay, poor man … and that’s a very significant thing,” “13th” director and best documentary nominee Ava DuVernay said at the Governors Ball shortly after the shocking moment. “I’m proud of them and I’m proud of the Academy for honoring that.”

“Moonlight” is an incredible cinematic achievement that shouldn’t be overshadowed. The film manages to make its specific story — about Chiron, a gay black man confronting his identity as he grows up — seem universal. It asks questions about identity, love and family. With a script light on dialogue, so much of the film’s power comes from the subtle performances of the three actors who portray the main character — Alex R. Hibbert, Trevante Rhodes and Ashton Sanders — not to mention Ali’s evocative performance in only a few scenes. The direction and cinematography envelop viewers in the world of the film, with its soft blue hues and romantic score.

For the Academy Awards, a win for “Moonlight” is a strong and hopeful statement about the future when it comes to inclusion in Hollywood. Moonlight is the first best picture winner to feature a black cast. It’s the first winner to tell a story primarily about black people that isn’t about racism, the civil rights movement or slavery. It is the first to have a gay protagonist.

But rather than focusing on these achievements — as would have happened had the announcement gone as planned — media coverage mostly has investigated how such an embarrassing mistake could happen on such a big stage. La La Land’s Horowitz has been repeatedly praised for the grace with which he handed over the trophy and the mike to “Moonlight.” Endless “Dewey defeats Truman” jokes have been made on social media.

Previously, the Oscars went through two years of #OscarsSoWhite, in which all acting nominees were white and most of the best picture nominees told white stories. “Moonlight’s” win doesn’t mean diversity in cinema is “fixed,” but it is a strong indicator that the Academy is embracing stories that it has ignored in the past. Eleven years ago, the organization awarded the best picture win to “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain,” choosing a film that trafficked in racial stereotypes over a critically acclaimed romance featuring gay men. This year, the more challenging, more progressive film won.

“There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible because I couldn’t, I couldn’t bring it to fruition. I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story, so everybody behind me on this stage said ‘No, that is not acceptable,’ ” Jenkins said as he accepted the best picture award.

Jenkins worked hard to tell Chiron’s story on screen. Don’t lose Moonlight in the story of the envelope.

“Moonlight” is available to rent or buy from digital retailers, such as iTunes and Amazon, and is still playing in select theaters. If you want to know what happened Sunday night, see the movie that was really the best picture of the year.

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY; Contributing: Andrea Mandell and Jaleesa Jones in Los Angeles

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